He cites Jamiroquai as an early influence, though more from a conceptual point of view than a purely aesthetic one. “Their music is really influenced by Roy Ayers and Donald Byrd — it's all kind of a rip off of those kind of grooves, but with more of a U.K. vibe,” he explains. “They really bridged the gap between commercial and soulful music. It's not about being an intellectual or doing anything too fancy; it's just about being true to the sound of our generation.”
For Williams, that sound is less optimistic than the nu-funk grooves of his ’90s inspirations — but still almost as danceable. He first drew international attention as one half of Yussef Kamaal, the jazz-and-more duo whose 2016 Brownswood release Black Focus is very much rooted in the contemporary jazz’s fascination with the synthy ’70s, but with a lot more U.K. dance music thrown in the mix. The album placed Williams and his then-creative partner Yussef Dawes at the center of London’s explosive improvised music scene, whose ties to club culture set it apart from those stateside — even as it too remains attached to the term “jazz.”
But the pair split suddenly in 2017 just before their biggest show to that point, and now Williams is working with his own band to capture his hometown on wax. “It’s a group of born and bred Londoners putting their emotions together to create something that will last for the duration of the earth,” he says of The Return. “The pace of London is very fast. Everything's two inches in front of you — there's no horizon in London, it's just buildings and capitalism. We gotta survive out here, and this is our way of expressing that.”
Williams grew up in London’s then-ungentrified Peckham neighborhood, the child of a Taiwanese mother and a British father. He’s still very close with his mother, the source of his artist name Henry Wu (Wu is her family name), and embraced learning some Mandarin as well as Chinese calligraphy while growing up. For Williams, that interest — as well as his parents’ work in design — translated into drawing graffiti around London (he declines to share his graffiti tag, saying that he was fairly prolific: “I wouldn’t want to incriminate myself”) and eventually, learning Arabic. Those influences combined can be seen in the cover of The Return, which features a black and white photo of Williams cropped into an Arabic character drawn by a Chinese/Muslim calligrapher. Williams himself is Muslim, and Kamaal is the name he chose for himself after converting seven years ago.
Musically, Williams names a few turning points: one was garage/grime duo Oxide and Neutrino, whose 2001 album Execute was the first one he remembers “going to Tesco and buying for £9.99.” “They're both from South London, so it was what we were listening to at school,” he explains now. He was already playing percussion in the school band, and the love affair with hip-hop in both its American and British forms that began with Execute led him toward producing. Another was his father introducing him to jazz via classics by Miles Davis and John Coltrane, along with some bluesier jams by Santana. By the time he’d reached college, where he studied music and got into playing keyboards as well as drums, Williams was a bonafide crate-digger — something he says is an evergreen source of inspiration. “Those records from the ’60s and ’70s sound fresh even today,” he says now. “I found one the other day by Eddie Henderson called Mahal, and it blew my mind — it's from 1978, and it sounds fresher than anything I've heard today. The fact that we can go back and find those records that were before our time just means there's a new lifespan on this music.”
Playing funk around London, Williams landed in the band of then-just signed dubstep singer Katy B, where he remained for two years. Gigging for other artists, though, eventually induced a crisis of faith that caused him to almost quit music in 2012. It was only with the promise of a new, artist-run label — 22a, which came together in 2013 — that Williams started creating again, focusing on producing broken-beat and house tracks. Critical acclaim (and Boiler Room sets followed as he integrated live music into his already jazz-inflected creations; enter Yussef Dawes and one fateful gig at Gille Peterson’s Worldwide Awards in 2016, and suddenly he had a record deal to make, if not jazz, something pretty close to it.
“To be honest, I don't even like the word jazz myself — I don't use it myself,” Williams says. “For me, it's 2018 — jazz is something that was in the ’50s and ’60s. [Americans] are brought up on jazz. We didn't really have that here, so our thing's a little bit different. I definitely think the spirit of jazz is in our music, but we're in a different era now.” Instead, the lineage he sees himself in is that of acid jazz bands like Incognito and the Brand New Heavies — bands that he feels are distinctly London. “Those are people that have sort of passed the torch onto me,” says Williams, who got to meet Incognito bandleader Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick a few years ago. “I really connected with him — we were the same,” he recalls. “We had the same approach to music.”
What Williams does glean from jazz — what you can hear on The Return’s fluid, unorthodox take on acoustic groove-oriented music — is both a devotion to craft, and the magic of collaborative spontaneity. “The market has been so flooded by electronic music, to the point where anyone can buy a laptop and make a basic house beat very quickly,” Williams says. “But what people can’t do is pick up an instrument and quickly record a jazz album. People are enjoying the experience of going to see five or six people on stage communicating with each other and improvising.” He’ll test that thesis this summer on a run of festival dates around Europe.
Just as Williams isn’t content with the term jazz, he’s not interested in calling his music fusion or acid jazz or any other term meant to indicate that yes, this music has improvisation but no, it doesn’t sound like Charlie Parker, or Albert Ayler, or Wynton Marsalis. “I'm going to start a new genre with the essence of jazz, but completely different,” he says. “When you see my live shows, it's something different. The energy's there, but what we're doing rhythmically and melodically is definitely new. I'm just working out the name for my new genre, but I'll get back to you very soon on that. I'll let you guys know.”