Kamaal Williams is at Revolution Hall
In a digital vortex of artificial realities, the most radical act is to summon the divine. This slant towards the sacred was once considered a benchmark aspiration, but has quietly gone endangered in a world of viral marketing and empty volume. For the keyboard and piano virtuoso, Kamaal Williams, the desire to connect to a higher plane forms the foundational component of his music. To listen to it is to tap into something artesian yet refined, subtle and meditative. It’s the work of a master emerging from his refuge with prophetic insights and gorgeous modal revelations. Something that reminds us that transcendence is rarely easy, but it’s often simple.
With William’s latest opus, Stings, the visionary artist has written something elegant and subversive. It’s elementally rooted in the south London jazz scene that birthed him, but levitates into the impressionist symphonies of Claude Debussy, and the cosmic realm of futuristic hip-hop and electronic beats. In a sense, it’s reminiscent of the shapeshifting genius of the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, who could elicit exquisite and tender emotions in a few artfully expressed notes, who believed in the traditional Japanese notion that God could be found anywhere... “in mountains, trees, and rocks.”
Kamaal Williams’ artistic practice is born out of an emergent multiplicity. Born in Peckham, London, and of Taiwanese descent, Kamaal has long been bridging worlds, spatially and culturally, geographically and sonically. Creator and founder of the London based Jazz duo, Yussef Kamaal, the album Black Focus reinstated a new wave of Jazz in the United Kingdom. In addition to live instrumentation, Kamaal Williams also releases electronic music under his given name Henry Wu.
The project began during the pandemic when the artist born Henry Wu, purchased an upright piano and began writing the doxologies that comprise Stings. For the first time in his career, the Peckham-bred artist was fully independent. No label or booking agent in his ear. No ordained path to adhere to. His north star existed in the sounds that flooded into his head and the understanding of what Quincy Jones said: “once you chase music for money, God walks out the room.”
Stings is the product of isolation, reflection, and profound spirituality. Its title is partially a play on the strings that vibrate throughout the album. But it’s also an allusion to the myriad difficulties overcome in the last several years: the requisite haters and bad actors trying to impede the progression. To be stung is an unpleasant and unwanted attack. Yet when a wasp stings, it drops to the ground and immediately dies. In a sense, it’s an act of martyrdom, which Williams identified with in terms of his live performances that consumed every ounce of effort, passion, and concentration.
There is also the desire to return to the struggle that forged Williams’ identity. After three albums, Wu began to search for the underlying forces behind the art, and the reasons underpinning his unrelenting desire to continue performing. It was a natural reaction for a people’s champ who had achieved international acclaim since his formal debut, 2016’s Black Focus – a collaboration with Yussef Dayes that was widely recognized for being among the first to bridge the gaps between the jazz renaissance’s of Los Angeles and London. Williams followed it up with a pair of highly-praised solo masterpieces, 2018’s The Return and 2020’s Wu Hen. Fader called his work, “magical, like a cosmic artistic eclipse.” Pitchfork hailed his “kaleidoscopic vision...an encapsulation of a newly brewing [London] jazz community, uniting numerous cultural strands that make up the city.”
But with Williams, it’s always deeper than the music. There is an unimpeachable realness and authenticity to the way he lives his life and the way it pervades his art. He’s a careful observer attuned to the inequities of the world and the importance of being a vessel for empyrean forces. Each performance is more than sheer entertainment: it’s a battle in the trenches. There is a duty to spread a message of love, peace, and charity. Through music, there is the chance to nurture a sense of community and sacrosanct experience. The notion may be traditional, but the importance remains timeless.
The album was recorded in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago over the first months of 2022. Inspiration came from myriad sources including a preternaturally musical group of birds in Inglewood, an avian eight- piece string quartet who woke up Williams every morning with intricate call and response harmonies. The L.A. multi-instrumentalist maestro, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (Flying Lotus, Bonobo) contributed string arrangements. Other parts are played by the Grammy-nominated bass god, Sharay Reed, the violinist Stephanie Yu (Beyonce, Mariah Carey), Stones Throw’s DJ Harrison, the Katalyst Collective’s Greg Paul, and Atlanta saxophonist, Quinn Mason.
But the compositional genius resided with Williams, his piano, and whatever otherworldly muses may have played a role. There is “Ronan,” a tribute to a fallen best friend, first unveiled at his funeral. It sounds something like if Bill Evans recorded for Brainfeeder. On the teardrop symphony, “Taiwan,” Williams pays homage to his family’s ancestral homeland, where he recently conducted youth workshops. Joined by Yu, it’s built to soundtrack the bittersweet celluloid reels flickering inside your head. “The Guvna” descends into low-down slinking funk of gangland hits and celebratory dinners in underworld rooms wreathed in cigar smoke. On “Impressions,” FaceSoul croons seraphic testament about the importance of communal solidarity over rugged drums. While “Magnolia” features a spoken word soliloquy from Williams himself over a tender string composition that could make the whirling world stand still.
Spring 2022 marked a significant moment for Williams. While composing pieces for Stings in Los Angeles, he discovered his equivalent counterpart in German graphic designer Sascha Lobe (Pentagram Partner, Head of Design Architectural Association) and Qompendium’s Kimberly Lloyd. Recognizing each other as kindred spirits, the subsequent collaboration among these three creative forces has led to an extraordinary achievement best described as a gesamtkunstwerk – a term that encapsulates Kamaal Williams' remarkable accomplishment with Stings.
The album's visual concept encompasses a collection of bespoke typefaces, offering a synesthetic and visually captivating representation of the songs. Prominently featuring a wasp on the album cover, this main motif symbolizes a sleek predator exuding speed, danger, and the ability to evoke both pain and repercussions. The wasp is both aggressor and a martyr, simultaneously embodying the contrasting aspects of Williams’ compositions.
You can see the fruits of this collaboration from the name of the album to the mesmerizing scripts and drawings on the cover and liner notes. Everything is intentional, meticulous, and attuned to a deeper spiritual essence. In this respect, it marks a culmination for Williams who began designing letters on walls in Peckham then moved on to the calligraphy of Black Focus and now has worked in tandem with artists such as Sascha Lobe at the zenith of the design world.
This is a work that rises above its sum of notes and melodies. Williams has created something that transcends the medium itself. Audio becomes visual, and the visual becomes a memory in one’s own mind, ingrained but malleable, altering itself with each reflection and reconsideration. Pain converted into joy. Here is Stings, something that pierces skin to reach the bone marrow – something universal but so personal that it could only come from a singular voice, searching for the beautiful silence between notes.