25th September | Exchange

As I was making my hurried way over to Old Market, I had to zip up my coat for the first time since that uncharacteristically cold March. The autumnal air had set in, and with it came that familiar-yet-unfamiliar feeling of vague prescience; when the sun-bleached memories of summer are replaced by imaginings of brisk walks, homely food and an excitement for the new Halloween film… No? Just me? 

The main event, however, coaxing my little spirit of excitement out of its blanket of mundanity was Yussef Dayes’ set at Exchange. The drummer, one half of already-mythical Yussef Kamaal, is embarking on his first solo tour since the sad demise of the jazz-fusion duo, and Bristol was his first stop. 

The support slot was ably filled by Charlotte Dos Santos, whose otherworldly presence (heightened by a dress straight out of Lothlórien) was matched by her serene, sample-based beats and mollifying voice. Treading lines between Kate Bush and Erykah Badu, both in sound and aura, her set was a nice, gentle prologue to the high-octane rhythmic energy around the corner. 

Between the two acts, however, there was a wait that was just about to cross the border from uncomfortable to unbearable when Dayes, Rocco (son of legendary Pino) Palladino and Johan Kebeke shuffled onto the stage. After a short, sharp cheer of relief, the crowd fell into reverent silence. What followed was an hour of cosmic-fusion-improv mastery. Getting straight into a jam that somehow merged the playfulness of a seventies cop show theme with the weight of a prog epic, it was clear that this set was going to be more than just musicians flexing their (very, very skilled) muscles. 

With no gap, the trio slid into a 90 bpm, bass-driven, sticky-slick funk factory; Dayes allowing space for Palladino’s bass and Kebeke’s keys to get stuck into his cavernous pocket playing. From the outset, it was plain to see that this was a very organic performance, each musician in sync with the other two, locked into some corporeal musical calling; all led by Dayes, of course. 

At one point, the show boiled down to just some crafty delay-triggering with the snare, earning a few knowing chuckles from the crowd. These chuckles were soon whipped up into roars of delight when the seemingly indefatigable drummer spirited the trio into a double-time dancehall frenzy, beads of sweat flying from his face like miniature vessels of visceral, kinetic energy.

After taking a breather to introduce the other two men in the trio, Dayes went on to say “We could play tunes, but I like to improvise; it’s what I live for, so a lot of this is gonna be fresh tonight.” Fresh it certainly was; those overly flashy solos or self-indulgent excursions that can often clutter up gigs of this nature were left firmly out of the picture, leaving a lean but very nourishing performance in which technical skill served the music, and not the other way around. 

We did get two snippets of recognisable material in renditions of ‘Strings of Light’ (from Yussef Kamaal’s LP Blacked Focus) and ‘Blacked Out’, a recent collaboration with Alfa Mist, which closed the set. These two tracks are prime examples of what is setting Dayes apart from his contemporaries. Not only are they genuinely innovative and interesting grooves, they are beautiful, oceanic expanses of nuanced texture and melody that are even richer and more rewarding live than they are on the record. 

Thankfully, my hunger for more material was satiated with the announcement of a full-length LP dropping soon: “Groove, feeling and telling your story – that’s the most important thing, and I’m lucky to get to play with all these guys […] basically, there’s an album coming out in November and… you’ll see, wagwan.” These words will have anyone who’s been paying attention to Yussef Dayes in excitement overdrive, and if you haven’t been paying attention, then get to know; the sold-out Exchange certainly did.