Jazz CD Reviews

Yellowjackets – A Rise in the Road – Mack Avenue

More than three decades and going strong: Yellowjackets prove they can still create jazz filled with energy, integrity and inspiration.

Published on September 2, 2013

Yellowjackets – A Rise in the Road – Mack Avenue

Yellowjackets – A Rise in the Road – Mack Avenue MAC1073, 57:42 [6/25/13] ****:

(Russell Ferrante – piano, keyboards; Bob Mintzer – tenor saxophone; William Kennedy – drums, keyboards; Felix Pastorius – bass; Ambrose Akinmusire – trumpet (tracks 3-4, 8))

Yellowjackets put a UFO on the front of their latest release, A Rise in the Road (their second on the Mack Avenue imprint and 22nd album since forming in 1981). It is an appropriate image:  the US government recently admitted the existence of Area 51, where many believe UFOs have been studied and stored: the disclosure was a change in policy, and that’s where the link to Yellowjackets comes in (unless someone in the band is also a UFO fan?). In Yellowjackets’ 32-year history, change has been a mainstay (experimenting with their tradition has been fairly common over the long haul, as explained during an on-line video promo) and A Rise in the Road is another alteration in the group’s lengthy journey.

Yellowjackets’ aficionados already know bassist/co-founder Jimmy Haslip announced a permanent hiatus to concentrate on other projects and spend more time with family. Haslip wasn’t just part of the rhythm section but also a productive composer, so his loss was keenly felt. Fortunately, Bob Mintzer (tenor sax) and co-founder Russell Ferrante (piano and other keys) savor a challenge, and went to work: Haslip’s replacement is Felix Pastorius, son of famous bassist Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report, and solo artist). Ferrante clarifies the progression from Haslip to Pastorius during a short, online video. As a measure of the process, Pastorius (who previously participated in the Jeff Coffin Mu’Tet) gigged with Yellowjackets for eight months in 2012, so everyone could gel and become a cohesive musical unit: Pastorius discusses joining during a brief, online interview. Another welcome modification was the decision to record in a live-in-the-studio setting with minimal overdubs. This gives the ten new tracks a visceral quality: dynamic post-bop jazz, which is assertive (but sometimes quiet) and swings with vitality. Compositional ownership is split: four by Mintzer, five by Ferrante, and one by drummer William Kennedy, who returned to the drum seat three years ago. Kennedy converses about his on-and-off Yellowjackets tenure during a four-minute, online video promo.

Mintzer’s opener, “When the Lady Dances,” is effectively upbeat. Mintzer’s sax and Ferrante’s acoustic piano play the melody in unison, and the arrangement is both seemingly effortless and slyly intricate: the melodic timbre curls out and curls back in again, and the tune’s middle has some flowing improvisations. In another adjustment, Yellowjackets do not revisit the head: rather than circle back, they bring the piece to a different conclusion than expected. The group’s RnB roots flourish on Ferrante’s “Can’t We Elope.” The title and the main riff evoke Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”: the arrangement borrows Hancock’s bass line and feeling of soulful bonhomie. “Can’t We Elope” also introduces special guest, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, winner in 2007 of both the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition. Akinmusire and Mintzer do separate solos: Akinmusire takes chances and showcases a stimulus without being disrespectful to the tune’s conventional contours. On the other hand, his appearance on Ferrante’s “An Informed Decision” is barely discerned: his most notable contribution is on the fade-out. However, Akinmusire displays his inventiveness during Ferrante’s frenetic “An Amber Shade of Blue,” which is anything but bluesy, but very much boppish. Akinmusire uses a few atypical intervals during his solo, keeps his changes sounding fresh, and when he and Mintzer trade fours, the two perform with liberation and release.

While Pastorius’ presence is recognizable throughout, he seems most noticeable on slower compositions, where he calls to mind his father’s characteristic tone: this is helped by the inclusion of Jaco’s bass, on loan from current owner, Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo. On Ferrante’s twilight ballad “(You’ll Know) When It’s Time,” the younger Pastorius fashions a lyrical solo which carries a ghostly memory of his dad: it’s a singular moment worth repeat listening. Mintzer’s bubbly “I Knew His Father” is a Jaco tribute which alludes to “Teen Town” and other Jaco highpoints: and Mintzer knows, since he was in Jaco’s Word of Mouth Band and has often mentioned Weather Report’s inspiration. The lively number fuses a Latin groove, punchy rhythms, bop-blipped blues, and affords Felix occasions to run the bass fretboard, do some complimentary fills, and comp as the rest of the band flits through the manifest melody. Mintzer’s affection for Latin undertones is also heard on his “Thank You,” which has a trim, accented momentum and a solo section where Mintzer soars spontaneously, teasing the melody through changes and shifts in time. The only downfall occurs during Ferrante’s quietly moving “Longing,” which is marred by an overdubbed synth-string decoration at the end. Otherwise, as the album cover’s ascending UFO typifies, A Rise in the Road heightens Yellowjackets’ upward motion: on early outings, Yellowjackets were termed by some critics as being too glossy; but here the quartet exhibits chops and imagination.

TrackList: When the Lady Dances; Civil War; Can’t We Elope; An Informed Decision; Longing; Thank You; Madrugada; An Amber Shade of Blue; (You’ll Know) When It’s Time; I Knew His Father.

—Doug Simpson

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