Yellowjackets: Twenty Five

Twenty Five
Heads Up

A quarter of a century this institution has existed, with Russell Ferrante on piano and other keyboards, Jimmy Haslip on electric bass, and…

First there was Robben Ford’s guitar, but then saxophone came in, with first Marc Russo, and then from 1990 Bob Mintzer, alternating tenor saxophone and E(lectronic) W(ind) I(nstrument). Marcus Baylor is the fourth and current drummer (from 2000) and sheds valuable light on the performances here in a video interview on the DVD that accompanies the CD. The whole rack of former Yellowjackets is brought out on film to talk, and if you want to learn about music-making as well as about Yellowjackets here you have your chance. The group regards the DVD as “a way … of giving something back to their loyal fans,” which seems unduly modest, since the fans, presumably anyway, had their own reward. The DVD was directed and edited by Tony Zawinul, son of Joe.

Baylor confesses to feeling challenged by all the older music he’d not seen before, which he was asked to mug up on for this silver jubilee venture. Some fans think that he should have seen more of it earlier, and that they should have heard more of it again sooner. Can it be they now have everything? Besides what Baylor says about the contributions and gifts of the other three current Yellowjackets, and what’s said of the special input of, for instance, drummer Will Kennedy (1987-98), a certain amount of acumen was plain in the decision to engage Baylor as the most recent drummer.

The CD opens with sanctified-sounding piano, doubling a little on organ (conjured from the piano top box), and ends with Bob Mintzer’s tenor hallelujah-ing. Ferrante’s “Revelation” (composed 1986) is an ideal celebration number, a listener-reviver, a rejuvenator even back to the earliest times (when, according to the site, and I am not a Yellowjackets scholar, Mintzer guested on tenor with a trio that soon enough became a quartet he was a permanent part of). For those who need telling, like I did, “Geraldine” gets away from gospel-funk into dreamier territory, enhanced by a little electronic passage or two, but continually benefiting from the acoustic piano Ferrante plays not at all badly. He plays some very inventive choruses on the second tune, within a performance overall relaxed, and provides creative support for Haslip’s six-string electric bass on the third track. Ferrante’s piano is full-bodied, and he brings in his electronic side-arm without the tendencies of latter-day players or composer-arrangers to develop a flourish on that equipment. He has a nice way of getting back to entirely acoustic piano after having materialised a Hammond B3, say, on top of the larger instrument. A Grandpa allergic to any electronic music might be asking why so patently distinguished an acoustic pianist should have all that rubbish lying around on his proper instrument. The group is indeed a tremendously integrated one, but don’t forget how much each member has.

Baylor, who now knows much more Yellowjackets music than he did a couple of years back, refers to the music’s seeming informality having foundations in a lot of hard work and musical organizing. Who says relaxation has to be easy? The relaxation probably has an intimate relation to the extent to which these guys seem to delight in their work, the hard graft finished. Besides Ferrante’s righteous two-handedness, Mintzer is anything but a restricted player (or musician, to judge from recent big band work). He does have a nice way of bringing a slow burn to a flambé conclusion, on tenor saxophone.

What was the track on which Ferrante turned his piano-top box into aurally a vibraphone, after Mintzer had begun to develop into something “advanced” on his strange quasi-soprano saxophone with Haslip booming on bass? The difference between a Yellowjackets fan who could tell you about when this and that number was premiered, and a general appreciation of Yellowjackets, is that the broader identities of respective compositions aren’t always clear. They prefer detail which counts.

The live set 10 days earlier seems fresher, a little sharper, but not necessarily better, and an indication of how one night can differ from another. Besides, if every evening was just the same these would not be genuine smiles on Ferrante’s face, playing at the Naima Club in Forti, Italy. “Red Sea”: fun for them in achieving interplay!

“Imperial Strut”? A triumph of Yellowjacket baroque with an intricate left-hand figure on Ferrante’s acoustic piano inspiring the others to generate further intricacies. And beside the 19 years represented on the audio CD, “Imperial Strut” is a number which goes right back to 1981, when Robben Ford’s guitar held the place Mintzer’s horns do now.

There’s a serious string sound in the introduction to “Greenhouse” (circa 1990, co-composed Ferrante/ Haslip), which is hideously dateless since it’s a meditation on the way this goodly earth is turning glasshouse and gas-house. We need the same tenderness as is expressed in “Geraldine” on acoustic piano. And sometimes to irritate Grandpa (“how come these young fellers cain’t do this all the time!”) there’s pretty well an acoustic quartet, with all the range there is to Mintzer’s tenor-playing, and the similar freshness of everybody else’s work.

The strange quasi-soprano saxophone is the Electronic Wind Instrument I mentioned at the beginning, which Grandpa Acoustica might during at least one passage of the overall performance mistake for an electric recorder, the timber instrument played among ancient viols in Musica Antiqua. In mentioning the fact that Yellowjackets has two very big composer-leader-instrumentalist talents in Ferrante and Mintzer, Baylor in his video interview seems almost to take Jimmy Haslip for granted. Everybody seems to rely on him, an unpretentious performer who relishes enormously the solo opportunity. The DVD also includes a pretty presentation of the Yellowjackets discography, and a chance to hear the guys who no longer play in this band. Twenty-five years? A gold watch? Hardly! Nobody here has any problem knowing about time.

RATING 8 / 10