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Yussef Dayes' "Black Classical Music" is Already a Classic

Yussef Dayes on stage at the UC Theatre in Berkeley with members of his band and the cover art for his album Black Classical Music in the background

Jazz music can feel tucked away in time, more suited to a cooler and more avant-garde past. As such, it's often tucked away in space, either in auditoriums filled with people from the last generation who could afford to purchase single-family homes or in small, speak-easy type clubs where, even though smoking has long been banned, you may still imagine you’re watching the drummer groove through a haze both as dense and ephemeral as his rhythms.

Watching Yusseff Dayes through the slightly less romantic steam of body heat in the packed U.C. Theatre on Saturday, December 2, one was immediately immersed in the temporal expansiveness that has always characterized what he calls Black Classical Music, the title of his debut album.

The London-based drummer borrowed the title from other Black musicians, like trumpet player Miles Davis, multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and singer-songwriter/pianist Nina Simone, who especially found the term jazz limiting and steeped in white supremacy’s tendency to label and disparage all things Black.

For Dayes, the title puts the many genres and instruments that appear throughout the album in a timeless diasporic lineage, telling The Guardian, “There are so many nuances that can’t be defined by one thing. I’ve had classical piano lessons. I’ve been to West Africa and seen instruments that predate the cello and violin, drums that were there before timpani. There are other histories that made me realize this is bigger than just a jazz record.” Dayes’ musical breadth was already evident in his previous collaborations with other famed British musicians Kamaal Williams and Tom Misch, while artists as distinct as Masego, Jahaan Sweet, Jamilah Barry, and Chronixx appear on Black Classical Music.

Yussef Dayes feat. Tom Misch - Rust [Official Video]

Live, Dayes speaks very little between songs, allowing the music—and like any seasoned percussionist—the silences, to voice the multidirectional, polyrhythmic passages across the Atlantic found in Afro-Cuban, reggae, Afrobeat, hip-hop, and yes, jazz music. At one point, however, he dedicates the song “Turquoise Galaxy” to his mother: “My debut album Black Classical Music came out in September. To me, it’s a dedication to my ancestors and the people who have been a part of my journey. And a big part of my story is my mother, Barbara Hicks…her color’s turquoise. If you come to my garden in southeast London there’s a turquoise garden. Sometimes you gotta go to another place.”

Dayes bandmates—Malik Venna on sax, Elijah Fox on keys, and Dayes’s frequent collaborator Rocco Palladino on bass—have all the virtuosity of any classical musician and decidedly more groove. While there may not have been room to dance exactly, however you classify Dayes’s sound, it’ll make you move.

Bay Area favorites, bassist Aneesa Strings, and KALW’s own DJ Wonway Posibul, undoubtedly contributed to the show’s turnout and musical journey through Black classics in their opening sets, with Aneesa Strings even joining Dayes on stage during the encore to sing the Isley Brothers’ “Choosey Lover” and Sade’s “No Ordinary Love.” Jazz isn’t dead, and Dayes’s Black Classical Music is all the way live.

Black Classical Music was one of the albums on KALW Music's Best of 2023 list. See the full list now.