PX Records (PXRCD1006)

James Berkeley (vocals, keyboards); Leo Utton (electric guitar); Tom Caldwell-Nichols (bass and keyboards); Sam Hughes (drums); Scarlett Fae (vocals); Camilla George (guest alto saxophone)

Recorded PizzaExpress, Holborn, London 5 August 2023

Yakul (it’s a type of red elk found in eastern Asia) is a Brighton-based band whose music it describes as ‘future sound,’ with ‘deep grooves and jazz-infused progressions’ The music lies at the intersection of R&B and jazz, and I suspect some jazz purists would query the jazz label. But then, these are the same people who would claim that George Benson stopped playing jazz after his Breezin’ album and Miles Davis after Filles de Kilimanjaro.

This young group – the members are in their thirties – has acquired a strong following and has also played at the Jazz Café and Ronnie Scott’s. This recording was only made a few months ago, during a gig at PizzaExpress, London, and in that time, the album has been recorded, mixed, mastered, and released on both LP and CD, with a smart gatefold sleeve. What’s next on their agenda – a freshly-pressed CD waiting for you as you exit the venue?

The album has twelve songs (including two covers), with a total playing time of 53 minutes. Most tunes last around the 3-to-5-minute mark, with the longest track ‘30’ running a little over seven minutes. In other words, don’t expect any vast, extended instrumental workouts – indeed, all tunes feature the vocals of band leader James Berkeley, who also plays keyboards.

The opener, ‘The Space’ has an ethereal, rubato intro, with bassist Tom Caldwell-Nichols playing some additional keyboards before the tune breaks out in a heavy mid-tempo, syncopated groove. Berkeley has a strong, soulful voice, and his vocals seem to be have been inspired by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway and D’Angelo. The tune ‘April’ is a bright, breezy number with a strong hook, and half-way through, a bass riff marks a neat transition to a faster tempo with a Latin feel. The level of musicianship is high – Berkeley plays a solid electric piano solo on ‘Count Moments,’ and at the intro of ‘Blossoming’, Berkeley and drummer Sam Hughes play a short, tight riff in unison, with the keyboardist throwing in some tricky stop/start sections, and neither musician missing a beat. There’s also some volcanic drumming on this number.

Indeed, the playing is so good that one wishes the band would stretch out a little more in places. On the tune ‘30’ guitarist Leo Utton plays a silky guitar solo at the coda, reminding me of the late guitarist Zachary Breaux, who played with Roy Ayres. Scarlett Fae mainly harmonizes (sweetly) on backing vocals, but on the few occasions when she shares lead vocal, such as on ‘Time To Close,’ her talent shines through. As much as I enjoy Berkeley’s singing, it would be good to hear her taking lead vocals on a complete number. ‘What Does It Feel Like? is a mix of electronica, jazz and soul and features alto saxophonist Camille George blowing furiously over a dissonant synth riff.

The two covers are of songs composed by young songwriters. ‘Dark Red’ is a dark, sombre song, written from the viewpoint of a man who fears he is losing the love of his life. The band’s soulful rendition of Mac Demarco’s beautiful ballad ‘Chamber of Reflection’ is nothing less than superb, and in my view, even better than the original. The closing number – the ballad, ‘Holidays’ – has been a concert favourite for the past couple of years, and you could imagine Stevie Wonder singing it. The song starts with Utton playing Wes Montgomery-inspired octaves on guitar. In some sections, Berkeley sings falsetto and Scarlett Fae also shares lead vocal duties on this. Their voices fit together like the proverbial hand and glove – it’s a lovely vocal performance. Is it jazz? Well to quote Duke Ellington, there are simply two kinds of music – good music and the other kind. This album definitely lies in the former category.