By Allen Michie
Now that ¾ of the Yellowjackets are eligible for Social Security, the emphasis is more on confirming a legacy of creative compositions and expanding their art of arranging with a broader range of colors.
Yellowjackets, Jackets XL (Mack Avenue)
Yellowjackets have earned our respect. They are now in that rarified category of jazz bands that lasted over 40 years with at least one original member, a lineup that includes the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and the Sun Ra Arkestra. Even the Count Basie Band took a hiatus in the early ’50s. Sorry, jazz purists, but the only other active group I can think of that has been around longer (not including ghost bands) is Spyro Gyra. (Yes, Boomers, we’re that old now. Jay Beckenstein is our Johnny Hodges.)
The only original founding member, keyboardist Russell Ferrante, is athletic, playing in his prime, and not out of ideas yet. Drummer Will Kennedy joined in 1987 (with a break from 1999-2010). Saxophonist and Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) player Bob Mintzer joined in 1991. Bassist Dane Alderson is the newcomer, joining in 2015, replacing Felix Pastorius, who was with the band for three years and who in turn replaced original founding member Jimmy Haslip, who was with the band for 31 years. That’s just four years shy of how long Connie Kay was with the Modern Jazz Quartet.
It’s time to respect Yellowjackets’ musicianship as well. This is not a band stuck in one style grinding out nostalgia gigs. Over the last 40 years and 25 albums, they have recorded high-energy jazz/pop fusion, a film soundtrack, all-acoustic recordings, straight-ahead swinging jazz, gospel, and even some chamber jazz that wouldn’t sound out of place on ECM. All the while, they have done what a “real” jazz band should do — they have stayed true to their core identity and group sound while keeping up with contemporary styles.
With their latest album, Jackets XL (i.e., Roman numerals 40, probably not extra-large coats), the group celebrates their 40th anniversary by adding a big band to their list of genre explorations. It is clearly Mintzer’s project, and it is worth remembering that he has serious big band credentials. His first gig out of college was with the Tito Puente Orchestra, then the pressure cooker of the Buddy Rich big band for two years. Stints with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and the Jaco Pastorius Word of Mouth Big Band followed. Then in 1983, almost inevitably, he started his own big band of ’80s all-stars: Michael and Randy Brecker, Marvin Stamm, Lou Soloff, Barry Rogers, Dave Taylor, Don Grolnick, Will Lee, Peter Erskine, and Roger Rosenberg. Mintzer was also among the first to fully explore what digital recording and CDs could offer to big bands, making meaningful contributions to how they are recorded, mixed, and preserved.
As if Mintzer has extra time on his hands while he’s a member of Yellowjackets, a first-call session player, traveling clinician, and professor at the University of Southern California, he’s now the conductor of the renowned WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany. Jackets XL brings Mintzer’s career full circle, merging Yellowjackets with the WDR Big Band for a fresh look at some of the milestones and popular favorites in the long Yellowjackets discography. All but two tracks are remakes, and all but three are arranged by Mintzer.
The opening track, “Downtown,” is a good example of how Yellowjackets’ signature style works in a big band setting. The original is from Live Wires (1992), and it’s an up-tempo swing number with an angular Weather Report–influenced melody. The jerky short phrases allow space for busy drum fills with plenty of Zim!, Zam!, and Pow! The remake on Jackets XL is a bit slower and calmer. The melodic fragments sound deeper and more substantial when performed by a big band. The drums are still doing fills, but it’s in the polished Buddy Rich style instead of the Awesome Fusion Drummer/Billy Cobham style. Alderson swings when he walks and sings when he solos, and there is a joyful alto sax solo from Johan Hörlen that recalls Cannonball Adderley. This would be fun to conduct, and it would be a great student exercise chart.
Several other tracks follow a similar pattern. “Dewey” appeared on 1993’s Like a River album, a tribute to Miles Dewey Davis, and it’s in the slick, cleanly produced instrumental R&B style Davis was playing shortly before his 1991 death. Mintzer plays muted trumpet synth on his EWI, less an imitation of Miles than a tribute. It’s an appealing melody, so it’s good to hear it rearranged. The new version is more 2020s, adding a bit of a hip-hop rhythm and richer-sounding synth solos. Mintzer’s EWI is no longer playing a muted trumpet sound, and instead he plays a flute sound in unison with real flutes, making one of many effective blends of acoustic and electric instruments on this album. Not everyone may agree, but arranging for big bands is all about the sonic palette, and so long as the groove is solid, why not let the electric flute join the woodwinds?
Some of the big band tracks bring out new elements of the originals or highlight their strengths. “Mile High” from Four Corners (1987) has a walking synth bass, cheesy digital handclaps, and the kind of bright synth keyboards that drove a generation in the late ’80s to the closest Circuit City to check out the new Casios. The newer version is slower and more restrained, and dated hokey business is replaced with a new brass fanfare and subtle textures in the sax section. The change from synthesizer to acoustic piano makes a remarkable difference. Similarly, “Red Sea,” originally from Run for Your Life (1993), replaces the dated ’90s synth patches with acoustic piano. It’s cool to hear the trombone section covering what Ferrante’s left hand used to do. Mintzer adds a touch of steel drums into his EWI, no doubt a salute to Pastorius’s Word of Mouth Big Band, where Mintzer was once a featured soloist and arranger.
Other tracks dampen some of the fire and energy of the originals. I still remember taking the shrinkwrap off the bright yellow cover of 1981’s Yellowjackets, their debut album. It was innovative — one of the early all-digital albums — and it sounded bright, clean, and fresh. It had some of the pop appeal of the first Spyro Gyra albums (please don’t blame the Smooth Jazz sins of the children on the fathers), only with more of the edge of Weather Report and the bluesy drive of featured guitarist Robben Ford. One of the best tracks was “Imperial Strut,” with knotty lead guitar from Ford and a boogie-woogie bassline married to a jagged, questioning bop melodic line. It epitomized the sound of contemporary jazz circa 1981, the dragon Wynton Marsalis and the young lions would quest to kill later in the decade. The remake of “Imperial Strut,” by contrast, is meh. The best jazz/rock fusion both rocks and swings, and this remake doesn’t do either very hard. No doubt this band is tight, but it misses the fidgety creativity of the original. It’s all very precise, rehearsed, and overdubbed.
There is at least one track, however, where Yellowjackets are doing for 2020 what they did for 1981: mixing genres, exploring new sound combinations, and capturing the day’s jazz zeitgeist. “Cohearance,” from the album of the same name in 2016, is an all-acoustic piece with Mintzer on soprano. It sounds — no kidding — like Oregon. There is an almost classical influence in the syncopated counter-melodies of the piano, and it has a complex time signature that stumped several of my musician and music theorists friends (“it jumps around between a 7/8 and a 8/9,” “it’s 10/8 and starts doing something else,” “It opens with 5/4 then 6/4, and then adds some 3/8”). It’s an excellent choice for a rearrangement.
The new version of “Cohearance” is arranged by Ferrante. There are more unusual voicings here than on the other tracks. The influence is much less Buddy Rich and much more Maria Schneider, which is to say the track is less ’80s and more 2020s. The piano and cymbals are mixed a bit too high, and I would like to hear more of the interwoven textures in the band and the beautiful Schneider-influenced counterpoint between the brass and reeds. It’s easily the best track on the album.
It’s fun to imagine other pioneering fusion groups collaborating with the greatest big bands of the same years — The Mahavishnu Orchestra with the Sun Ra Arkestra! Return to Forever with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra! Weather Report with Count Basie! (Actually, that last one was pretty close to Pastorius’s brilliant Word of Mouth Big Band.) The team-ups would be either glorious messes or total catastrophes — but moments of genius guaranteed. This isn’t the impression you take away from Yellowjackets meeting the WDR Big Band. There are some sparks but, for the most part, this is music for students in tight college stage bands. I hope these fine charts find a lasting home there. Now that ¾ of the Yellowjackets are eligible for Social Security, the emphasis is more on confirming a legacy of creative compositions and expanding their art of arranging with a broader range of colors. Bright yellow is still nice on its own, but it also goes well with a glowing autumnal orange.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. He has graduate degrees in English Literature from Oxford University and Emory University. He has been listening to Yellowjackets since he was a jazz larva in his hometown of Charlotte, NC.