Jazz Album of the Week: Yellowjackets New Album is Safe for Honey Bees, Delightful to Human Ears

Nov 16, 2020

November 16, 2020. There’s a lot of information out there about bees these days, so it’s best to get a few things straight. The Asian giant hornet, the so-called “murder hornet,” is a dangerous potential scourge to the Pacific Northwest’s ecosystem. New video evidence shows a group of just several dozen murder hornets laying waste to a colony of 30,000 honey bees with cold, ruthless efficiency. These insects carry a potent venom and are not to be trifled with.

Yellowjackets, on the other hand, haven’t proven to cause harm to honey bees nor to any other earthly organism. In fact, many humans, especially those with musical tastes tending toward jazz have come to grow quite fond of their work over the past four decades. You see, the Yellowjackets I’m speaking of aren’t an invasive species; they aren’t predatory flying insects or collegiate athletics mascots of any kind. They are a band. A jazz quartet with multiple Grammy Awards to their credit. They’ve been around since 1981 and have just recently released their 25th album, Yellowjackets XL.

The saxophonist Bob Mintzer, a professor in USC’s jazz program and Yellowjacket since 1990, has held a third job since 2016: principal conductor of the Cologne, Germany-based WDR Big Band.

On Yellowjackets XL, Mintzer has allowed, in fact encouraged, that to happen which George Costanza famously said never must. He’s allowed worlds to collide. And so that’s how it came to be that the Yellowjackets’ quartet of Mintzer, Russell Ferrante (piano), Will Kennedy (drums), and Dane Alderson (electric bass) found themselves recording this landmark 25th album literally in concert with the celebrated big band from a faraway land.

Folks familiar with what the Yellowjackets have been doing since 1981 will recognize a lot of the content here. But even the most devoted fans won’t know every tune note for note. That’s because Mintzer has taken several of the old standbys and freshened them up with brand new arrangements that represent who the Yellowjackets are musically in 2020.

Minzter’s said the transformation of the quartet’s catalogue has been like watching his children grow up.

“Mile High” is one tune that’s taking itself a little more seriously now than it did during its pop-heavy hey-day in the 80s. That doesn’t mean it’s settled down with a wood-paneled station wagon or a two-story colonial per se.

DNA of “Mile High” 1.0 remains, but this new version is hipper and more sophisticated, yet no less anthemic. With the backing of WDR’s robust horns, we’re presented with the kind of rearrangement that certain kinds of Chicago or Blood Sweat and Tears fans would die to hear from those groups.

“Revelation,” originally from 1986’s Shades is another one. For years, this was the band’s live closer, their real closer, the one they encored to. It serves the closer’s role here, too. And like all closers with longevity—Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera…Mitch Williams?—it hasn’t lost its fastball. And its secondary pitches are filthier than ever. Mintzer’s restructured the tune to elevate its gospel roots, and the main beneficiary of the new arrangement is Ferrante who takes the thing to church in a very Michael McDonald “Takin it to the Streets” kind of way. Makes me want to sit back, kick my feet up, finish the rest of the album, and then maybe catch a few episodes of Sherman Hemsley in Amen.

While Mintzer’s (re)arrangements constitute 70% of the album, I’d be remiss not to recognize arrangements from WDR’s composer-in-residence Vince Mendoza. More gospel-flavored block chords from Ferrante make this one familiar, but beautiful interplay between woodwinds and brass takes it home; there’s just something divine about muted trumpets and flutes playing in unison. Throw in Mintzer crossing streams out front with electric guitar and a popping electric bass solo, and we’re talking Weather Report-goes-to-church type vibes.

The opener, “Downtown,” is the other Mendoza arrangement; with more of a classic, straight-ahead feel, it’s a technical clinic run by Mintzer, Will Kennedy, and Dane Alderson, who is truly a bad, bad man with an electric bass guitar. Athleticism, ideas, and endurance. Whoa! And the horns jab with the force of Larry Holmes and the discipline of Floyd Mayweather.

Ferrante’s “Coherence,” the penultimate tune, is a circular affair with less of a big band feel and more of an orchestral one, with amplified parts for trombones and French horn.

To hear Mintzer and Ferrante, the tune’s composer and Mintzer’s colleague on USC’s jazz studies faculty, plugged in, so to speak, check out “One Day.” With Mintzer channeling Weather Report-era Wayne Shorter and Michael Brecker on EWI (electronic wind instrument), Ferrante gently dropping rounded electric pearls of sound from the Fender Rhodes, and Alderson on electric bass, this one’s where you’re able to more clearly discern the anthropological missing link between fusion and the contemporary jam band scene.

If this sort of musical territory is where you live, draw a salary, pay taxes and otherwise get all the way down, you might find that the companion piece, the country-fried, funkified “Imperial Strut,” gives you even more of the nourishment you require, with that Michael McDonald-style gospel piano, serpentine synth lines that interestingly sound electronic and also reedy, as though filtered through amplifier made from bamboo. But at the end of the day, it’s down home, soulful piano and a knockout horn arrangement that’ll get those feet steppin.’

For fans of more vintage iterations of the ‘Jackets, the characteristic groove and playfulness is still there, as is Mintzer’s ability to lay down a full-bodied tenor sax solo—as he does on Ferrante’s noirish, meandering “Tokyo Tale”— as though it were 1986. But the guys are a bit older now, and, to paraphrase Harry Nilsson, they were in search of weather that would suit their [new] clothes.

“It was like putting on a new set of clothes,” Mintzer wrote on his website, confirming the aptness of the analogy. “This represents how the Yellowjackets play now.”