Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes Deal in Reverence

“First of all, Yussef is an amazing musician.”
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London’s Tom Misch, 24, and Yussef Dayes, 27, are gifts to the modern jazz scene. Apart, they both stand as impressive musicians—singers, drummers, violinists, guitarists, you name it—but together, they elevate each other to unprecedented heights. Their collaborative album, out today via Blue Note, What Kinda Music, is not a fusion of Misch’s 2018 record Geography and the Dayes-assisted 2016 Yussef Kamaal album, Black Focus. Instead, the album plays like an excursion. Gorgeous strings, inspired drumming, and Misch’s silky vocal guide us along a 12-track jazz trip.

There’s a knowing warmth to What Kinda Music. “Festival” winds and hugs us, while the flecking guitar riffs making up “Kyiv” set an exquisite mood. What Kinda Music is not posed as a question, but if it were, the answer would be: tunes for uncertain times. There’s a curiosity to Misch’s playing, matching nicely with the measured temperament Dayes brings to a majority of these tracks. The key to What Kinda Music lives on the final track, “Storm Before The Calm,” which in title alone captures our cultural moment. The playing is haptic, but not cause for alarm. Warm jazz tones remain present while the instrumentation reaches a new level of spirit and uprising.

Where Misch’s Geography felt like a more linear work, What Kinda Music is a spastic odyssey. Both records are trips in their own right, but What Kinda Music has a sense of profundity, as Misch alludes to with a vocal skit on “Julie Mangos.” It’s 2020, and Yussef Dayes and Tom Misch are challenging our conceptions of playing, performance, and jazz arrangement. What Kinda Music is stellar in the literal sense, otherworldly and brilliantly evocative.

Perhaps the best part of What Kinda Music is the reverence Misch and Dayes have for each other. They adore each other’s playing, and the album brought them back to the bare excitement of making music. The two deal in reverence, and it comes alive on What Kinda Music in the best, most animated way. 

My conversation with Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: When did you two meet, and how did you bond?

Tom Misch: I’ve been aware of Yussef for a while. We met about two years ago at my Geography launch party. I was a fan of his stuff, and we said, “Let’s get in the studio.” From the moment we got in the studio, I felt we had a strong musical connection.

Talk to me about the genesis of What Kinda Music.

Yussef Dayes: After the launch party, we got in the studio. From that one session, we felt there [were] quite a few ideas—more than just one track—so we just kept doing more sessions. There was one particular session where we made that vibe for the tracks and thought, “This could be a tape or a project.” The beauty of it was there was no pressure on what sound we’re going for. We were just making ideas from stuff we’d been inspired by. It organically grew into an album.

I love the title because it’s like you’re posing a directive to the listener to meet you halfway and figure you out. Was that the goal?

Yussef: Yeah, definitely. Especially in my drumming, I try to be free in it. Most music, to me, is related to each other. Rhythm is always intertwined, and sometimes it’s just letting the listener decide what you wanna think of this music. Whatever it makes you feel, or where it takes you. Music is music. I know we have to use titles to help people define it, but me and Tom are into a lot of different stuff. With [What Kinda Music], we had a chance to explore.

Tom: Yeah! I listen to all different types of music, and I find it exciting trying different stuff. I’d get bored if I was making the same stuff all the time. I’m listening to old soul music and electronic music, and that seeps out in what I make. I don’t listen to one genre, so [the record] is a fusion of stuff.

Yussef, in an old interview, you talked about drums as an expression of energy. What energies were you bringing to What Kinda Music?

Yussef: Not gritty, but even the way we recorded was… Industrial. We both did a lot of Radiohead kind of sounds, finding a way to use my rhythms and process them differently to how I’ve done before. Tracks like “What Kinda Music,” where you can hear me tuning the drums, it’s giving the people the understanding that the drums can be a melodic instrument. Can be something you can write a piece of music with. Working with Tom on this… He might start with a synth sound, and I’ll go to the drums, then he’ll take it away, edit it, and come back with a song out of that. That’s the first time I’ve worked like that.

I just try and use my feelings—it’s my way of expressing myself. The drums [are] a deep instrument, man. It has a lot of energy. It’s my way of singing; it’s my voice. I try and get that concept on the record.

What was the primary workflow like for What Kinda Music?

Tom: It varied quite a lot. Each track was made in different ways. “The Real” came from a day where we recorded a bunch of drums and chopped this Aretha Franklin sample. Yussef played the drums, and I did something separate. Other tracks, like “Nightrider,” we were recording in the studio, and that was us just jamming. [We] arranged it, chopped it up, wrote some vocals. There wasn’t one way of doing it.

How did the collaboration push you both to grow from 2018’s Geography and 2016’s Black Focus?

Tom: First of all, Yussef is an amazing musician. There’s the aspect of him technically being a top-tier musician. What’s been nice about this record is jamming with Yussef pushes me musically. Then there’s the influences… When you collaborate, you channel someone else’s energy. Yussef is into different stuff, different music. Channeling that energy brings out something different in me. I’ve developed a new taste for certain genres and styles I wasn’t into before. My sound is gonna be grittier because of this record.

Yussef: Tom’s got the work ethic. I’m not lazy, but Tom is already there loading up the track, and it’s arranged. It’s been [dope] to see someone putting in that time and effort to make that happen. How Tom runs the production is crazy. A lot of the greatest music that’s come about is good musicians coming together and making collaborations happen. We’re both from similar areas, and it made sense to make some music, man. Even the fact that it’s on Blue Note, it makes us wanna take our craft to another level. We got the same desire to make it happen.

Which song on What Kinda Music really gave you trouble or felt most like a puzzle?

Tom: There are a few tracks that didn’t make the record we had trouble with. Really wicked tracks. Stuff that’s on the record… Yussef? Some of them take longer than others. “Festival” was a puzzle!

Yussef: The original idea of “Festival,” we did that in the studio as well. Because it was recorded on tape, it felt like… When we [were] listening to it on our systems, it didn’t have the same feel it had in the studio. Once we arranged it and Tom wrote the vocals, it suddenly lifted back to that original feeling.

Tom: There was a long period where I wasn’t sure how to approach “Festival” vocally. [This project] was relaxed, and we had time to live with the music and not rush with the melodies. Wait and see what felt right. I’m slow with lyrics, so that was a long process, getting them right.

What did you two learn about yourselves throughout the process of putting What Kinda Music together?

Yussef: I’m a serious person. That’s how I drum. There’s no other way to say it; it’s like a spiritual thing. It’s my calling. Sometimes, if you relax and just enjoy the process and try new ideas, it gives you a new perspective on why you do this. When I was learning [how to make music], it wasn’t to have a career, it was for the love of it. I remember last year, we [were] in the studio finishing a track. We spent every day for two weeks recording, and it was just being [in] that element, where you can just live and breathe it, man… It was special to remember why we do this.

Tom: It’s the same for me. It brought me back to purely what I love about making music. The excitement of creating something you love. Those goosebump moments in the studio… I like collaborating, and I don’t know what I learned about myself, but I think you learn about the compromises you have to make [while collaborating]. It’s balancing that relationship with the person you’re working with, that’s quite important. Learning when to say, “No, I want to do it my way,” and when to compromise. Finding [middle ground].

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