Henry Wu Presents Black Focus [Live Review]

On the morning of their biggest headline show to date – at London’s KOKO –Yussef Kamaal announced that they would no longer be performing together. Gaining recognition for the mix of afro-spiritual, funk-inflected jazz displayed on their 2016 debut, Black Focus, the duo of drummer Yussef Dayes and keyboardist Kamaal Williams, aka Henry Wu, were equally notorious for their on-stage telepathy, expanding album productions with improvisatory flare and confidence.

It was with noticeable disappointment, then, that ticket holders for the show responded to the announcement that rather than Yussef Kamaal performing, the show would now comprise a new ensemble led by Henry Wu. Yet, change is not necessarily a bad thing.

Bucket hat and shades on, Wu took to the stage and launched straight into a percussive improvisation on the Rhodes. Opposite him sat Josh ‘Mcknasty’ McKenzie who had the unenviable position of filling in for Dayes. Despite being Labrinth’s older brother and a semi-finalist of 2013’s Britain’s Got Talent (or, in fact, because of this), McKenzie held his own throughout the show. Switching up Dayes’ typically snare-heavy, polyrhythmic style and instead favouring an afrobeat flavour with heavy inclusion of the toms, McKenzie seamlessly flipped the beat and responded to Wu’s playing.

Bass player Tom Dreissler was also on hand to provide noodling runs on tracks like Strings of Light, ensuring Wu and McKenzie had a groove-heavy foundation on which to improvise from. One of the highlights of the show was the addition of trumpeter Nick Walters whose phrasing cut through Wu’s chord changes and lifted his compositions into the live setting.

Ultimately, the new line-up showcased Henry Wu as a bandleader, commanding his musicians into double-time and fierce solos. The show lacked the improvisatory force and sheer power that Dayes normally brings, at times exposing Wu’s repetitive playing. Yet, the packed audience still felt the energy, and as Wu stated when he walked on stage, this project goes beyond personnel, it is about ‘opening doors for more independent jazz music’.

[This piece was published in EZH Magazine on 05/05/17]