Heads Up is fast becoming the most reliable of labels when it comes to promoting the smoother end of contemporary jazz. It’s also showing a willingness to stretch that despised category to allow for releases that might even tempt “proper” jazz fans. This is a great service, for one of the more legitimate criticisms of smooth jazz is that (not actually being jazz) it does nothing to encourage interest in the wider history and diversity that the form offers. Time Squared is, therefore, both timely and illustrative of what might just be a significant turn (or return) to the jazz fold of some of its more profitable but problematic offspring. In truth, the Yellowjackets were never really an SJ outfit. However, they are generally associated with the less demanding, radio-friendly end of the market and, despite plenty of official plaudits, tend to be regarded by the cognoscenti if not with outright scorn then with a rather superior disdain. Yet, not only does this album offer a surprisingly varied menu of styles and moods, it is a truly substantial jazz set, well worth a place alongside some of this year’s most critically approved projects.
This is not to say that the band have gone all experimental and abandoned their populist roots. The vibe is mellow, easy on the ear, and rough edges are few and far between. Even so, those who think of the Yellowjackets, positively or negatively, as operating in safe, slightly bland, pop-jazz waters might be a little taken aback. Some enterprising charts cover straight-ahead jazz, modal pieces, some post-bop versatility, old school electric-jazz, delicate Latin-Fusion, a dash of Go-Go rhythms, and a fair smattering of CTI-inspired soul-jazz. Oh, and to please the buffs there are some 5/4 and 6/8 signatures and other tempo-switching delights. The results are tasteful but very, very tasty.
The current incarnation of the group consists of reeds-man Bob Mintzer, Russell Ferrante on keyboards, plus bassist Jimmy Haslip and relative newcomer Marcus Baylor. If they’ve played better, together or apart, then I’ve seriously missed out. Mintzer solos, mostly on tenor or soprano sax, with fluidity and conviction, and his brief bass clarinet showcase on “Smithtown” is triumphant, begging the question why this eloquent instrument is not put to better and more regular use elsewhere, especially given the staleness of most contemporary soprano sax outings. Ferrante, who has something reminiscent of Ahmed Jamal to his sound, is a vastly under-rated pianist. He shows real touch and precision on the more modal numbers, and there is an almost nu-jazz sensibility to his electronic work. Haslip, who can be quite rocky when in the mood, is thoughtful and restrained for the most part here — no bad thing, in my books. Marcus Baylor has none of the big-suited, ’80s brashness of the “Jackets” drum-chair’s most famous previous occupant, Rick Lawson. Instead, Baylor brings a dash of NY Loft freedom to the role (think Billy Higgins in less extreme moods). In unison or individually, there is no denying that this is a mutually sympathetic and pretty classy line-up.
Mintzer is the lead front-man, musically, and is in dominant form throughout the album. Yet, the main composer is Ferrante and, as the compositions are stronger than on previous occasions, I think he deserves the major accolades for the set’s success. All participate in the writing at some point, though, and it is perhaps churlish to single any one figure out. As to the tunes themselves, there is a cumulative sense of reflection and reassessment to the pieces. Some of this is overtly nostalgic .The atmospheric “Smithtown” and the Return to Forever-ish “Time Squared” both specifically evoke youthful sounds and places. More poignantly, two pieces deal with one daughter’s growing-up (“Clare at 18”) and another’s serious illness (“Gabriela Rosa”).
Maturity, then, not only in the execution but in thematic concerns, is a key part of this record’s ethos. The album actually closes with “My First Best Friend”, dedicated to someone who never made it to adulthood. I suspect many might see this as staid, and even maudlin, middle-agedness but it does not feel like that. The music is tender, yes, but lacking any worrying signs of self-pity. Even the pitfalls of dedicating a tune to September the Eleventh (“Village Gait”) are avoided. If all this sounds unduly somber, again, that is not the emotion conjured up. There is sadness and thoughtfulness, but there is also great warmth.
Plenty of bounce too. The opener (“Go Go”) is Washingtonian in both the Grover and geographical sense, and is followed by the lively boppishness of “Monk’s Habit”, thus indicating early on that this is going to be no one-dimensional experience. The most relaxing number is “Healing Waters”, with Jean (“Mrs.”) Baylor on vocals. This really is “smooth jazz”, but in the best George Duke, ambient tradition. Another change of style comes in the form of “Sea Folk” and “V”. These owe most to the Coltrane-Davis era and Ferrante sounds very much at home in what are the “jazz” tracks that should most embarrass the more highbrow and skeptical listener.
I hope they stay around for the rest of the session. I also hope the Yellowjackets don’t lose their long-term fans with what is perhaps their most “difficult” album. This shouldn’t be a problem as the music is difficult only at the level of a greater sophistication, not in the sense of being “hard” to understand. It remains within the bounds of Heads Up’s non-threatening but increasingly impressive remit. The fact remains that this is a fine hour or so of music and, I hope, it marks the beginnings of a small rapprochement between the “commercial” and “art” wings in modern jazz. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still a credit to all involved.