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Kassa Overall scales the percussive heights live at Ronnie Scott's

12 August 2023, 13:23

Part way through Kassa Overall’s sold-out Ronnie Scott’s show, bandmate Tomoki Sanders erupts off the stage and runs laps of the room beating a cowbell.

It feels almost incongruous seeing an act as subversive as Overall in a place like this. Here, you can watch the band pulsate with percussive ferocity all while eating a ham terrine from the comfort of a velvet banquette. Naturally, the crowd starts off a little timid, “have y’all got Covid!? I can’t hear you!” Overall teases, “for any of you tourists who have no idea what’s going on, my name’s Kassa Overall.”

Overall grew up in Seattle, he went to the same high school as Jimi Hendrix before studying percussion under Billy Hart at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. He’s a drummer of serious pedigree, playing alongside the late Geri Allen, Ravi Coltrane and Yoko Ono. In his own music, Overall’s approach is expansive, melding avant-garde experimentation with hip-hop production techniques. At Oberlin he struggled with manic episodes, eventually leading to a bipolar diagnosis, and his lyrics are a candid examination of his mental health and the Black experience.

Fast-forward to 2020 and Overall’s star was on the rise. His second studio album I Think I’m Good was released on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label, solidifying his reputation as a preternatural style-blender. He toured the album in Japan and the west coast, but just as Overall’s sound started to permeate uncharted territory, the pandemic hit, shutting down any possibility of further live shows. He fell into crisis and returned to his hometown of Seattle.


The Warp-released Animals heralds Kassa Overall’s return. Its titular metaphor is personal, describing his role as an entertainer and as a Black man in America, but also extends to something broader. The album examines the “golden handcuffs” of artistry, personal ambition, loneliness, race, mental health, home; it’s an ambitious collage of ideas delivered with meticulous artistry. “We call ourselves humans, right?” he explains. “But we do animalistic shit towards each other. We justify immorality by almost stripping people of their humanity.”

It would be impossible for Overall to faithfully translate the ambition of his album into a live setting, however, his band captures the vision of their leader with skill. Shifting between spoken word and improvisation, they reject the false dichotomies between jazz and hip-hop. Overall’s warmth as a performer radiates: “Now you see why I wore my gym gear” he quips after a particularly fierce drum solo. He’s able to oscillate between the two moods of the record, riding high on unchained freneticism in one moment then pulling back into something more intimate.

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