Kamaal Wiliams’ (aka Henry Wu) has always been one of class, his show at Le Poisson Rouge on March 9th, 2019 strengthened that stature beyond doubt. After the dissolution of jazz-duo Yussef Kamaal, Wu’s dedication to the sound, culture and tradition of contemporary jazz didn’t waver. He released his album The Return and founded his own label Black Focus! (the same title as Yussef Kamaal’s famed debut album). His work continued to build upon the signature sound of Yussef Kamaal, but did so in a way that further affirmed Wu as a solo artist. Knowing all this, I arrived at LPR beaming with excitement—I knew I was in for a treat.
LPR’s stage is barely elevated, as much as the first or second step of a staircase—an ideal set up for a jazz performance. When the opener, Jitwam, began spurring his audience to life, I could read all the expressions on his face. Jitwam is a Brooklyn-based producer and vocalist most known for his enlightened strain of avant-garde jazz (side note, his biography is worth reading if you have a moment.) Accompanied by The Free Dream Experience, Jitwam’s opening performance was sincere, psychedelic and a perfect introduction into the jazz macrocosm that would be my night. He also performed “Temptations” a headlining track on his soon-to-be album Honeycomb—set for release on May 3rd.
Wu stepped on stage with a jazz-man’s swag and wearing a pair of black shades; to his left was bassist Marlon Spears and facing him was drummer Greg Paul. On this night, Henry Wu truly explored the definition of experimental/technical jazz (or his self-assigned genre Wu funk ), wandering into interesting meters and long improvisational jams—a true jazz macrocosm! The trio played a number of songs off Wu’s 2018 album including “Salaam.” His stage presence was modest, he played from the side of the stage and apart from offering his occasional thanks to the audience, there was no way of pinning him as Kamaal Williams (had you not known his backstory.)
Jazz musicians like Henry Wu cater to a more sophisticated, demanding listener and, as a result, his shows are active listening experiences that not everyone has the necessary attention span to enjoy. I noticed this during Wu’s set, the audience thinned as the performance got more intense… but then you know who the real fans are! I personally found the performance not only soul-moving but also thought-provoking. I may have danced for the first 10 minutes but then lost myself in Wu and Paul’s connection. The two performers communicated beautifully throughout the show, and best of all, I could observe the head nods, eyebrow lifts, and “ eyyy’s” happening between them.
Having witnessed Wu’s presence, it fits that he leads the continuation of Yussef Kamaal; his love for this genre, culture, and tradition is obvious. With that said, I’m excited about his solo career, especially with a new label behind him. As a pioneer of contemporary UK jazz, Wu could truly empower London’s newly brewing jazz-community through Black Focus! I can’t wait to see what the universe has in store for Kamaal Williams, Henry Wu and all his other alias’!