Smooth jazz was a crummy deal at its peak, and it seems like it has finally run its course. I personally pronounced it dead here at PopMatters a while ago and got chuckled at a bit, but it turns out that I was right. Smoooove stations have pretty much disappeared from the FM dial, and most of the worst offenders in this area of instrumental “lite R ‘n’ B” have moved on in various ways.
The Yellowjackets is a band that was always a little better—more substantive—than the other smoothies. Co-founder and pianist Russell Ferrante plays acoustic and with swing, and for the last two decades the band’s sound has been led by robust tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer—who plays with muscular drive in every situation. Their sound has always been a combination of upbeat and complex, with the various members contributing tunes that have tricky time signatures, rippling runs, and sunny explosions of energy. These cats have made 22 records. Whew.
This year finds the Yellowjackets replacing the founding bassist Jimmy Haslip. The new guy has a famous name: Felix Pastorius, son of Jaco. And that makes sense because this is a band that has always had a heavy strain of Joe Zawinul (and his band Weather Report) running through its musical DNA. Hearing another Pastorios playing in that context is fitting, comforting, A-okay.
A Rise in the Road is a fine Yellowjackets record, surely one of their best. It was recorded “live in the studio” with only a few post-production overdubs (and every one of them a goopy synth mistake, but there are only a few). Mostly what you have here is sharp and upbeat jazz, the kind of stuff that has an assertive sense of swing even as it gleams with happiness.
The opener, “When the Lady Dances”, was written by Mintzer, and it’s everything that’s cool in this music as well as what sells it with a casual jazz listener. The swing is punchy and upbeat, and the melody—played in unison by tenor and acoustic piano—insists on being both sunny and wildly tricky. This is the kind of music that sounds effortless but also calls great attention to its virtuosity. Mintzer’s melody furls and furls again, spinning one idea around and over itself until it doubles back and spins out again. The middle of the tune, where the improvising is, seems secondary to this kind of song. Mintzer swings it all deftly and Ferrante is light and flowing, but it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. You’re really just waiting for the head to come back around.
Another Mintzer tune, “Thank You”, has a neat syncopated momentum with a light Latin kick to it, and it’s more interesting in the solo section, letting Mintzer roam more freely across its changes and sense of time. This tune has more genuine jazz drama and feels less like a showpiece for the trickiness of its own execution.
The most intriguing wildcard here is not the new Pastorius. Rather, it’s the presence on three tunes of phenom trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere. Akinmusere is a Blue Note artist who wouldn’t seem to be a natural foil for the Yellowjackets, but he comes into these tunes right at home, giving them a bit more body and sass. On Ferrante’s “Can’t We Elope” (a funky take of Herbie Hancock’s “Canteloupe”, no doubt), Akinmusere solos second, and he comes off as much more daring and imaginative then Mintzer’s solo scurries and darts, it takes more harmonic and sonic risks without ever violating the rules of this kind of mainstream date.
On “An Amber Shade of Blue”, Akinmusere is even more daring. He uses a number of unusual intervals in his solo, sounding like a man with a new way of running over the changes. At the end of the tune, he and Mintzer trade fours, and he seems to inspire the tenor man to play with more abandon. It’s just what a band like this needs.
Pastorius is not notable or singular on every tune, and that’s as it should be. But he is capable of evoking his dad’s distinctive tone on the slower, quieter songs. On “(You’ll Know) When It’s Time”, he plays a lyrical solo about a minute in, and darn if you don’t feel like you’re in the presence of Jaco himself. The Yellowjackets evoke Weather Report in a few other places as well. On Mintzer’s “Civil War”, the cast of the melody is very Zawinul-eque—and the arrangement emphasizes this in the third section of the melody by having the tenor sax line doubled by an airy synth line. Then, in what amounts to the fifth melodic section, Pastorius doubles the melody on his electric bass, reinforcing the same impression.
There are a couple of other tunes where the band violates its “recorded live” precept to lay in some unnecessary gloss. For example, “Longing” is delicate theme stated by Pastorius and Mintzer over a shimmer of great cymbal work from drummer Will Kennedy, and the improvisations are solid and imaginative. Why did the band have an interest in placing a synth-string pattern over the ending section? It doesn’t ruin the song, but it’s like an old habit you wish your dad would break—a middle-aged guy who still wears Aqua Velva. There’s a similar sonic frosting—subtle, but there—on “Madrugada”.
In the end, however, A Rise in the Road is a lift, an elevation of a band’s game, a move forward. The Yellowjackets are one of the smoothies who’ve always had the chops and the imagination to transcend their cream cheese genre. This disc suggests that they can still make Happy Jazz that leaps over the objections of non-jazz fans and also has integrity. Keep on buzzin’, YJ’s. You clearly know what you are doing.