The U.K.-based drummer and producer is making a name for himself on the modern-jazz scene, and he’s fine being referred to as a jazz drummer. Just don’t box him in.
Yussef Dayes’ father came from Jamaica to New York in the 1970s, bringing along the family and a huge record collection of jazz-fusion and reggae music. By the time he was four years old, the youngster was drumming and playing along to records. Billy Cobham was his guy, and when the great Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer came to the U.K. for a week-long drumming course, Dayes attended.
Dayes’ family was one of those where everyone played something, and as the drummer’s abilities expanded, he never lost sight of the importance of collaborating with those nearest and dearest to him. Along with his brothers, Dayes made music with the group United Vibrations and later with keyboardist and producer Kamaal Williams as the duo Yussef Kamaal, releasing the album Black Focus in 2016. Both bands mixed jazzy grooves with drum ’n’ bass flavors for a sweet modern stew, while Dayes studied and incorporated into his playing everything from Afrobeat and West African music to rock and funk sounds. His playing, even if mimicking machines or throwing in fluttery breakbeats, always retains an organic element. “You’re human,” says Dayes. “Your heartbeat doesn’t beat perfectly in time; it has a movement to it. It’s the same with music.”
Lately Dayes has collaborated with keyboardist Charlie Stacey and bassist Rocco Palladino in a trio that improvises onstage with surprising results. Their song “Duality,” which is a combo of two distinct tracks, spotlights Dayes’ eclectic interests and developed skills. The first half is a leisurely, chill keys vibe, while the second half switches gears radically and ups the tempo and snare ghost notes. Look for a live record from the group soon. Dayes’ most recent release is What Kinda Music, a joint album with guitarist and producer Tom Misch.
MD: What kind of things rubbed off on you when spending time with Billy Cobham?
Yussef: It was about understanding who you are and what your style is, and finding the best techniques and ways to express that, instead of trying to be someone else. When I was younger, I saw that a lot of my favorite drummers were all making records, which is the ultimate goal. I’m interested in making a wicked record. And Billy didn’t have all those drums for no reason. And he explained why he had them, and why he tuned them that way. When I heard the philosophy of what he was doing, it was deep, and it made me think that everything had to have a purpose.
MD: Was the drum ’n’ bass and fusion stuff more informative, or was the less chops-oriented reggae thing more influential on your playing?
Yussef: It was a mixture of everything. When I was a kid in the 1990s, drum ’n’ bass and jungle was a big thing. My room was next to my older brother’s, and there would be all those records coming out of his room, and I’d just drum along to them. At the same time my dad might play a James Brown or Harvey Mason record, so I was getting all these influences and hearing these beats that were all about a groove and a feeling. And then there was a lot of the Wailers with Carlton Barrett, one of my favorite drummers. Of course you have to have the technical ability, but a lot of my favorite drummers, it’s about the feeling, the groove. Sometimes if you can make the simplest rhythms feel good, that’s the art.
MD: Did you spend time with traditional books and normal chops-building exercises?
Yussef: I used to practice for hours, and I had a teacher for a couple of years. But I’d go through stages where I’d spend months just focusing on what Tony Williams was doing. And then I’d get Alan Dawson’s book. And sometimes I’m uptight, but I kind of like that, because when you’re playing breakbeats you need to be kind of firm with it, because you have to get the power out of the drums. But sometimes the tune doesn’t require that, and my shoulders come down and I’m relaxed. I’m not the most technically sound drummer, for sure. But my focus went away from that. And I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time recording, and learning how to tune my drums and what cymbals work where. But I want to get back to practicing. I want to re-up on my technique, to expand my vocabulary. I can’t stay stagnant. But a lot of my playing comes from the people who surround me, my environment and my family.
MD: And you can’t study that out of a book.
Yussef: I don’t think people talk enough about things like groove and feeling and emotions, not as much as they do about the technical thing. I like musicians who have character and express themselves. If that’s something I can share more of with people, then that’s what I want to do. Drums are a good instrument. It’s physical. Your brain is active; you have four limbs. There’s so much going on.
MD: So you play “solo” shows with your trio, but you’re releasing a joint album with Tom Misch?
Yussef: The record with Tom is a studio album, and it’s a production. There will be visuals and a different kind of energy. My thing with my trio is raw, improvised, and in the moment. It’s high energy. Call me what you want, a jazz drummer or whatever, because if it’s allowing me to be free with who I work with and to express myself in different ways, I’ll rock with that. I’ll go with that.
MD: For your trio, do you come up with the material for the jams?
Yussef: I’m the producer. My job is to produce and arrange the thing and to put the set list together. Obviously Charlie will write his part and Rocco will write his part, but I bring people together, and I control the sonics, the arrangement. People don’t know that side of me, but that’s what I do.
MD: What’s the musical goal for the future? To lay down some beats for Kanye West? Or to get your trio to back someone up or keep playing shows together?
Yussef: I love collaborating with top musicians who will make me up my game. A lot of people are stuck in boxes. But I’m free to release my record with Tom and my live album with my trio and [later] my own studio solo album. But I’m down for whatever. I want to produce someone else’s album or do a soundtrack to a film. Wherever my heart’s taking me.
Yussef Dayes plays Yamaha drums, Rototoms, and Istanbul cymbals.
Photo by Florian Joahn