It’s a cool foggy night in the Fillmore District, but there’s nothing but heat coming from the stage of Yoshi’s jazz club. It’s an aural pleasure befitting such a classy venue. The San Francisco version of the Oakland jazz institution is a little bigger, maybe even a little nicer. Its presence has certainly helped spruce up the district, adding a second world-class venue to the once forlorn but now rebounding neighborhood.
The venue’s sound system is crystal clear and the high-end drinks are strong. A Stormy Night runs $11, but it’s served in a tall glass that’s like having two drinks at most clubs. There’s just something about top shelf liquor and hot jazz music that go together so well. Ace guitarist Mike Stern has joined jazz stalwarts Yellowjackets for this tour and he fits in like an old band mate returning to the fold. The band’s new album Lifecycle features Stern, so it’s not like this is an impromptu gathering. But adding a lead guitarist to a jazz quartet is definitely an art-form, and it’s immediately clear that Stern is quite the artist. He filled the role with no less than jazz-fusion legend Miles Davis for three years in the early ‘80s, so there are few guitarists more qualified.
Stern comes out and opens the first number with some clean funky riffs, accented by the crisp drumming of Marcus Baylor. Sax man Bob Mintzer comes in with a smooth horn line. Bassist Jimmy Haslip joins in next, laying down the groove. Keyboardist Russell Ferrante is the last to jump in, as the band artfully builds up their sound. It’s a great way for such a virtuoso outfit to start the show, building up the tune one instrument at a time. Stern does some jazzy composing while Minzter takes an extended lead. Then Stern throws down a clean solo over a walking bass line from Haslip. Stern eventually kicks on some sustain and really starts shredding, yet his tone is still sweet and clear, never piercing. This gives way to a piano solo, then a bass solo, and eventually a wicked drum solo before everyone unites on the original theme again. Like the drinks, the instrumental prowess on display is top shelf.
Stern is visibly stoked and why not—playing with such talented band mates makes a guitarist feel like his instrument can almost play itself. The second tune starts off with some mellow guitar over a low-key bass line, but Baylor soon throws down a slamming beat that signals Stern to start shredding again, first clean, then with the sustain. Mintzer comes in with the sax and the band takes off. The jam mellows back down and Stern delivers some tasty swells that sound like a bird fluttering over a transcendent sunset. The band is like an ocean, with big waves building up and crashing, then building back up again and again. They’re are an incredibly tight ensemble with a modern sound and an impressive ability to vary their dynamics on a dime.
The next tune starts out with Mintzer playing some kind of MIDI horn that enables him to tap into some spacey synth sounds. The band launches into a swinging groove, somewhat reminiscent of the classic theme from Charles Schulz’ “Peanuts”. Stern rips it up again, followed by a nifty piano solo from Ferrante. Stern and Mintzer come back in at the same time for a cool harmony run leading into Mintzer’s solo. Each player is in total command of his instrument.
Stern opens the fourth song with some melodic riffs, while Baylor uses brushes to add a light touch to an otherwise rocking beat. It’s a mature way to rock, yet still manage to balance the dynamics of the sound. The jam flows over the up-tempo rhythm as Stern mines the melodic vein he opened with for some of his sweetest playing of the evening.
It’s only been four songs, but with all the jamming going on the set is already well over an hour. The band introduces the next song, “Bop Boy”, as a blues number that will end the set. It starts way up-tempo with the rhythm section sounding plenty jazzy, but with Mintzer’s sax delivering some deep blues. The jam simmers down for a moment but then Stern comes in with some scintillating fretwork. The drums, bass, and keys are really synched in, enabling Stern to just cut loose and soar. He takes the jam way outside and then brings it back as the song seems about to end. But then the group shifts into a major key and keeps the song going with a superbly triumphant jam led by Mintzer’s sax.
When the wave crashes, Ferrante starts another one rolling with a tasty piano break, while Stern gets the crowd clapping in unison. The bass, drums, and guitar all come back in at once, vamping out behind Ferrante. Stern then delivers a bluesy pentatonic solo more in the Clapton mold, followed by a sick bass solo from Haslip. They’d probably prefer to just keep jamming all night but it is approaching midnight now and the band finally wraps it up to a big ovation. Jazz, blues, fusion, big jams, masterful variations on dynamics, tones, and melodic themes; it’s all on display in what looks to be one of Yellowjackets’ sweetest lifecycles yet.