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Live Review: Yussef Dayes @ Sydney Opera House

7 March 2024 | 1:28 pm | Shaun Colnan

Yussef Dayes impresses in each arrangement with his dexterity, his versatility and his improvisational brilliance.

Yussef Dayes

Yussef Dayes (Credit: Jordan Munns)

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Some couldn’t bear the wait. Ten minutes rolled past with an empty Concert Hall stage. Then fifteen. In this day and age, anything other than instant gratification sees people doing anything to keep themselves busy. Yet, the audience who had come out to see Yussef Dayes sat in their anticipation.

Then, as the lights darkened, a cheer rose up. Soon after, the world-class South London drummer Yussef Dayes took the stage by storm, accompanied by keys, bass and sax. Dayes propped himself up on a raised platform where his kit sat. The lights were a steady and sultry crimson as a meditative saxophone line played, and the stuttering opening of the title track from Dayes’ hugely popular 2023 LP, Black Classical Music, took shape.

This was a furious jazz piece with nods to greats like Coltrane, Monk and Saunders. Watching Dayes’ drum work is like watching a dancer at the peak of their ability. It is both ecstatic and awe-inspiring. All the while, the bass and that rhythm led by the foot keep us locked in while the sax and keys cavort and rollick. 

Keeping on the theme, spruiking the glorious recent album release, the quartet launched into the next track on Black Classical MusicAfro Cubanism, a nod to the melange of styles and inspirations Dayes bleeds together as he intends to reshape the way we think of jazz. Little keyboard flourishes and accents meet with dextrous drum patterns while the bass provides the groove.

A sweet, mellifluous sax solo opens the next track, Raisins Under The Sun, extended for the live set before the moving drums kick in. The sax shines under the spotlight as the lights burn blue, and the simple, primal bassline moves with subtlety. Dayes impresses in each arrangement with his dexterity, versatility, and improvisational brilliance.

It seems that with each song’s denouement, he is goading someone – his bandmates? The audience? The spirit? – into extending the groove indefinitely as he holds his sticks at the ready and looks around eagerly. Then, as if defeated, he lets them fall, and the song is definitively over.

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Pausing from the musical onslaught, Dayes stands with the mic in hand: “Last time, in 2022, was outside… But to be inside this crazy concert hall is a beautiful feeling, so thank you so much for coming through… Last time I came, I said Brisbane on the mic…” Given that he’s had a month off between dates in Brazil and has been in Australia for at least a week, Dayes seems to have shrugged off the jet lag that haunted him the last time around. So, he’s able to deliver a masterclass in modern jazz the way it should be.

Tidal Wave is next, thanks to Tom Misch (absent) and Rocco Palladino (present and part of a bass dynasty including Papa Pino). While Misch’s lyrics were also absent, the atmospheric inundation came thick and fast as aquiline lights swamped the Concert Hall’s ceiling.

After Tidal Wave, Dayes dove into a compelling drum solo that captivated the crowd and sunk them in silence before the band moved into Birds Of Paradise, a deep groove with psychedelic-tinged keys infused with modulation.

Then, the lights shifted and Dayes kicked into overdrive as the band improvised a track we could all revel in, listening to how each layered their instrument on top of the other and then wove themselves together to create a wondrous showing of innovation and ingenuity.

It was a bit of a family affair as clued-in fans might’ve spotted Dayes’ dad in the crowd. Dayes even paid homage to his mum, Barbara Hicks - “she’s a yoga teacher, and where I live in South London is all turquoise… it’s like another galaxy… so that’s dedicated to my mum.” He poured that love into the track Turquoise Galaxy, an aptly spacy song that carries you away into that extraterrestrial yet homey space.

It’s no wonder why they call the keyboardist Elijah Fox “the octopus man” as he takes over the show with his beauteous showing of piano soloing before turning to another keyboard and noodling an augmented progression while keeping his left hand on the piano. Then he stands and diverts his attention between two other keyboards as the song begins in earnest. Here comes a soulful and nourishing sonic feast with that infectiously catchy key hook: an updated and even more stunning rendition of the track For My Ladies off the 2019 single Duality.

Chasing The Drum also wowed as Dayes paused to engage with someone in the crowd who yelled something out in a language other than English, to which Dayes was au fait with, as seen when he raised his sticks and lowered his head to the guy. It was most likely the lyrics taken from the sample at the end of the album version of the track.

“I don’t know where Malik’s gone, but we need the saxophone. Malik, where are you at?” Then, the saxophonist, Malik Venna, popped out of Door 13 and caught the spotlight before diving into an opening solo, which he continued until he reached the stage. 

In the final few songs, Dayes welcomed one special guest, Kenya’s own Ivy Alexander, on guitar. She seemed a little overawed by the situation but shone when she could shred—and shred she could.

Ultimately, the last words have to go to Dayes, whose eloquence and calm composure bleeds from his words into his music and back again: “They call it jazz music, but for me, there’s reggae influence, there’s afrobeat, there’s hip hop… we’ve travelled round the world… we’ve been to West Africa, to South America, to Australia, to the Americas… and there’s so many different rhythms and sounds. You can’t limit it in one box, but, you know, they call it jazz…”