Jazz buffs know about the Yellowjackets. This is a Grammy-winning band that writes and performs complicated, intricate compositions that cross countless boundaries and thus make them difficult to pigeon-hole.
By Glenn Rifkin
Sometimes, a musical performance is graced by the coming together of outstanding players in an extraordinary venue—the music and the ambiance forming an ethereal tapestry for a memorable evening. Such was the case on Saturday night in Rockport when the Yellowjackets, the iconic jazz quartet, performed on the stage of the Shalin Liu Performance Center. With the full glass wall as the backdrop, a pastoral post-sunset sky over Rockport Harbor made for a surreal but beautiful moment—seagulls, anchored, rocking sailboats, the darkening water and skies, the fading light—as Russ Ferrante, Bob Mintzer, Will Kennedy and Felix Pastorius kicked off the concert with “Timeline” an aptly titled tune from a band that has been together, more or less, for 33 years.
Jazz buffs know about the Yellowjackets. This is a Grammy-winning band that writes and performs complicated, intricate compositions that cross countless boundaries and thus make them difficult to pigeon-hole. Indeed, their music is so admired that it is used in composition classes at places like Berklee College of Music and other music programs and the band members are dedicated to education for new generations of jazz performers.
Thus a Yellowjackets concert is a journey across the decades and styles. On Saturday night in Rockport, the set list included pieces, such as “When the Lady Dances” from the band’s newest CD A Rise in the Road which debuted last year, along with pieces from each of the last three decades.
Felix Pastorius, the 32-year old son of the late pioneering jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, joined the quartet in 2012. He brings much welcomed new blood to the group and has, in a short time, melded effortlessly into the music. For Ferrante, Mintzer and Kennedy, who’ve spent the better part of 33 years playing together, there is an easy familiarity and comfort that bespeaks an obvious and binding camaraderie. These guys play off each other with the sense of old friends who finish each other’s sentences.
On “Timeline,” Ferrante’s melodic riffs on the Steinway set the tone for a lovely, if not always energizing evening. Ferrante sets up his synthesizer on the piano so he can play both instruments simultaneously. When he and Mintzer share the moment, the electricity is apparent. Mintzer, an immensely talented saxophonist who has played with the likes of Tito Puente, Buddy Rich and Art Blakey, is a chameleon. He has performed with the Yellowjackets for more than 20 years but he also has his own quartet, teaches jazz at the University of Southern California and is a sought-after session man who has worked on albums for James Taylor, Donald Fagen, and Queen, among many others. In his spare time, he writes for orchestra, concert band and big band with over two hundred charts to his credit.
On Saturday night, the unforced beauty of his solos was stunning. He drew loud applause during “Spirit of the West”, a 1998 composition from the band’s Club Nocturne CD. The quartet then segued back to 1980 with one of their hits “Geraldine” which offered up a slower, mellower vibe and once again, Mintzer’s melodious sax solo filled the hall.
Ferrante introduced “Claire’s Song” one of several pieces written for his daughter, that featured a duet between Ferrante on keyboard and Mintzer on the EWI, an electronic wind instrument that transformed the composition into a hauntingly beautiful number to end the first set.
The energy and pace of the first set seemed missing after intermission. Ferrante’s usually gorgeous solos were somewhat muddled and it required more dazzle from Mintzer, along with impressive solos by Kennedy on the drums and Pastorious on the electric bass to keep things moving. Not unlike many jazz ensembles, the Yellowjackets is just one of many gigs for each of its members. Kennedy was off to Moscow on Sunday while Mintzer had plane tickets for Sicily; so perhaps they were distracted.
The second half failed to ignite as often as the first set but it had its moments. By the time the quartet reached its final number, “Jacket Town,” off the 1994 Run For Your Life album, the audience was rejuvenated and offered up a rousing standing ovation. “Revelation,” the standard encore tune, dated from a Robben Ford album from the 1970s, before the Yellowjackets were officially a band. Ford, the founder of the band, brought in Ferrante, bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Ricky Lawson to form the group in 1981. Haslip stayed with the band until 2012 when he went on hiatus and Pastorius came aboard.
Pastorius brings a remarkable pedigree along with his electric bass. His father Jaco was considered a jazz pioneer who introduced the fretless electric bass to the world with stunning virtuosity. A member of the iconic Weather Report, Jaco Pastorius literally changed the jazz world with his bass innovations. He also worked with such giants as Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell and is one of only seven bassists inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. Sadly, he suffered from serious mental illness and died a violent death at age 35 in September, 1987, leaving behind his family including the five-year old Felix.
The younger Pastorius is a tall, passionate player in his own right and his fingers fly over the frets with amazingly rhythmic solos. He has often been compared with his talented father and he is melding quickly with the Yellowjackets. Jazz buffs note the irony, that the Yellowjackets music is heavily influenced by Weather Report, so the presence of Pastorius seems appropriate on many levels. Even on an off-night, a Yellowjackets show is an evening well spent.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.