The Yellowjackets have always suffered from a misdirected association with smooth jazz, but the truth of the matter is that they have always had a stronger edge, with driving rhythms and virtuoso playing that set them apart from their peers. Recent efforts, including the live Mint Jam and their most recent studio release, Time Squared show a group that has developed a recognizable contemporary sound, with a more acoustic bent. With the reissue of their first album, Yellowjackets , it becomes obvious that the key ingredients were there all along.
Owing as much to the southern fried funk and gospel of the Crusaders as the more groove-oriented work of Weather Report, the mainstays of the group, keyboardist Russell Ferrante and bassist Jimmy Haslip, demonstrated frightening chops coupled with the restraint to know just when to use them, in addition to a fine sense of composition and orchestration. Original drummer Ricky Lawson brought in a strong funk ethic, in direct contrast to current drummer Marcus Baylor who, while perfectly capable of laying it down, has a stronger capacity for straight-ahead feels. Later versions of the band featured first Marc Russo and then Bob Mintzer on saxophones; the early Yellowjackets were guitar-centric, highlighting the talents of Robben Ford, one of the few guitarists who can challenge Larry Carlton in the area of blues-drenched fusion mixed with a strong traditional background.
Remastered recordings can only be as good as the original source tapes and, based on the sound of this reissue, the original tapes were very good indeed. The writing is a little shorter on memorable melody than later work, but the album still sounds remarkably contemporary; the use of synthesizers is, for the most part, subtle with an emphasis on keyboard sounds that have not become dated. Ferrante relies more on piano, delivering some fine solos, most notably on “Katie,” one of the four bonus demo tracks that sound no less finished than the original album, and the two versions of “Imperial Strut,” which demonstrate formidable left hand technique. Haslip, who later developed a distinctive fretless sound, is heard here mainly on fretted electric bass; as impressive as his technique is, it is never superfluous. And Ford is simply stunning. While he continues to demonstrate his abilities these days, it is in a more focused blues sense; on tracks like “Imperial Strut” and “Rush Hour,” his ability to meld styles is at its best.
The reissue of Yellowjackets is a surprisingly welcome event. It proves that it is possible to create accessible contemporary music with teeth; embrace virtuoso capabilities in a context that is also heavy on groove; and make music that is absolutely timeless. Yellowjackets sounds and feels as if it could have been recorded yesterday, and that’s about as good an accolade as one can offer an album released twenty-three years ago.
Track Listing: Matinee Idol; Imperial Strut; Sittin' In It; Rush Hour; The Hornet; Priscilla; It's Almost Gone; Imperial Strut (demo); Flat Tire (demo); Katie (demo); Blondie (demo).
Personnel: Russell Ferrante: keyboards; Jimmy Haslip: bass; Ricky Lawson: drums; Robben Ford: guitar; Lenny Castro: percussion; Paulhino da Costa: percussion; Bobby Lyle: acoustic piano (3); Roland Bautista" guitar (3); Larry Williams: tenor saxophone, flutes; Jerry Hey: trumpet, flugelhorn, flugelhorn solo (5); Ernie Watts: tenor saxophone (1); Bill Reichenbach: trombones, horn arrangements; Gary Herbig: tenor saxophone, flute; Kim Hutchcroft: tenor/baritone saxophones; Larry Williams: additional synthesizer programming, horn arrangements.