MUSIC

Yellowjackets' Mint Jam
By Jonathan Kiefer

I'm baffled by the persistent prejudice against Yellowjackets. Too many people still shrug them off. Too many, who should know better, still assume that they belong between the more forgettable Spyro Gyra stuff and the more embarrassing David Sanborn stuff on radio stations programmed to "get you through the work day." That they make toothless fuzak.

It just ain't so. I'm not denying that the "contemporary jazz" scene, once a well-kept nest, has become a rather shabby pigeonhole. But Yellowjackets don't like it any more than we do. That's why, after a career spanning more than two decades and multiple Grammy nominations (and two wins), they've finally done away with less-than-supportive major labels and taken full creative control, financing and producing an album entirely on their own. Mint Jam, recorded live over two nights last July at the Mint in Los Angeles, should put the prejudice to rest once and for all.

This double CD, sold exclusively through Yellowjackets.com, introduces eight previously unrecorded songs, and brings new vitality to four old favorites. Having attended both shows, I'm glad to say that the recording ably conserves their energy; the music on Mint Jam is as fresh and vigorous as it was when I first laid ears on it.

Yellowjackets have a practiced knack for keeping their listeners listening, and Mint Jam is no exception. One of the band's consistent strengths is a mastery of exploratory modulation. They blend idiomsóbetween songs and within themólike nobody's business. Through careful changes of tonality and meter, an A section feels one way, a B entirely another (not to mention the C's and D's). Yet they mesh, synthesize into a whole not only greater than the sum of its parts, but also more fun.

At first, the solid, upbeat shuffle of "Boomtown" connotes good, old-fashioned funk, but before long a chromatic bridge has carried the tune away, and it expands to accommodate a piano solo with decidedly modal moments. Likewise, at its sunny start, "Motet" doesn't quite let on that it will build to an infectious gospel hook, but in retrospect it seems inevitable. Citing "the spicy Cuban dish of the same name," Bob Mintzer rightly fills "Mofongo" with sundry strong flavors. "Mosaic" and "New Jig" both make good on the promise of their titles. My personal favorite, Russell Ferrante's inventive homage "Blues for KJ," opens with a cool, cerebral lyricism, takes a few deep breaths to gather its steam, and pounces into a spry, catchy lead line, full of blue-note sass and syncopation.

"KJ" is of course the great Keith Jarrett, another musician without borders, equally at home in Bach and Bird. Ferrante rounds out his salute with a searching pedal-point soloóthe very technique by which Jarrett has famously spun many standards into immortal 20-minute meditations. Another nod to one very significant influence is the opening track, "Les is Mo," which I'm guessing Ferrante had wanted to write and record for some time. Anyone who knows Les McCann and Eddie Harris' Swiss Movement (and everyone should) will thrill to this driving, gospel-clockwork groove and its fond evocation of McCann's rousing "You Got It In Your Soulness" piano solo.

Other influences are less apparent, but equally well-assimilated. Here the difference between merely doing the homework and actually learning something is clear: Mint Jam is as hearty as it is heady. Even the most complex rhythmic experiments ("Tortoise and the Hare, "New Jig") will stir you up. Even the longest, most asymmetrically syncopated, bop-infused melodies ("Runferyerlife," "Statue of Liberty") will stick in your head. Even the densest harmonic structures ("Mosaic," "Song for Carla") will give you goosebumps. Or, to put it another way, this just feels like a live album should.

Like several of the hallmark recordings to which it rather bashfully aspires, Mint Jam buzzes, as it were, with the verve of four musicians at the top of their shared game: working hard and playing hard, enjoying themselves and their audience, displaying what they've already built and breaking new ground.

But in case you're still not convinced, we should also talk about the playing.

I don't think saxophonist Bob Mintzer ever met a phrase he couldn't turn. Whether organized or improvised, Mintzer's melodies are so organic, his accents so expressive, it's no wonder he's so comfortable at the melodic helm of such a diverse musical catalog (his most recent big band album, Homage to Count Basie, just earned a Grammy nomination). And, after careful study of "Mofongo" and "New Jig," I really can't think of anyone else who so truly owns the EWI (Electric Wind Instrument). Maybe it's because Mintzer allowed it the dignity of a real instrument, when other MIDI-mad technophiles couldn't get past the gimmick.

Russ Ferrante, too, has an impressive vocabulary for a soloist, and he's not afraid to take risks. But he hasn't forgotten the importance of his rhythm section role. The real beauty of "Motet," for instance, is in his comping, his way of gradually building it up under Mintzer's tenor solo, subtly modifying voicings, adding energy, complexity. It takes genuine musicianship and humility to understand how to give a tune a place to go,an arc, and how to make someone else's solo sound good. Ferrante folds a few synthy sounds into the set (even having seen it, I must remind myself that he's only one man), but in careful moderation; he spends most of his time on the piano.

Any rhythm section anywhere would do well to have Jimmy Haslip on bass, not just because he's so solid, but because he's an enormously generous ensemble player, always listening to his bandmates, always willing to share with them. Haslip's rich, gently-chorused tone anchors the group and bolsters his own melodic and soulful solos. Clearly he commands the instrument, but I don't think he's out to dazzle the audience. He'd rather move them, and so he does.

Still only in his mid-twenties and showing up other drummers twice his age with half his chops, Marcus Baylor became a Yellowjacket in April of 2000. But he behaves more like a hummingbird, darting and flitting between the blossoms of these works, bringing out their nectar. Whether he's skipping gaily toward the solo section of "Motet," sending sparks off the hi-hat in "Mofongo," or trading eights with Haslip in "Evening News," (co-written by Baylor's predecessor, longtime Yellowjackets drummer Will Kennedy, it's a tall order), you wonder not only how he maneuvers so well, but how he even stays airborne. Even among musicians who clearly benefit from having played together for a long time, Baylor fits right in; his addition is prolific. It's another masterful modulation.

So no, this is not your older brother's fusion band, a dying breed that won't go gracefully. It's not another watered-down "smooth jazz" act with no sense of history and no apparent future. This is Yellowjackets, as good as it gets. The independent spirit with which Mint Jam was made, and the unmistakable vitality of its music, augurs well for its makers, for your CD collection, and for jazz at large.