With the departure of bassist Jimmy Haslip
in 2012, pianist Russell Ferrante
is the sole original member, more than three decades after the band's debut recording Yellowjackets
(Warner Bros, 1981) set the ball rolling. That said, saxophonist Bob Mintzer
has been onboard 22 years and drummer Will Kennedy
14. Not for nothing does the twenty second studio recording sound every bit a Yellowjackets offeringand a fine one at that. New bassist Felix Pastorius
has been touring with the band for over a year and in quiet fashion makes the bass chair his own.
Melodically seductive throughout, there's less bite than on Lifecycle
(Heads Up, 2008), which featured guitarist Mike Stern
and fewer really memorable tunes compared to the exquisite Timeline
(Mack Avenue Records, 2011). Nevertheless, A Rise in the Road
is a worthy addition to the band's discography. As ever, Ferrante and Mintzer share writing duties and the trademark Yellowjackets sound remains firmly intact; straight-ahead grooves and flowing bop lines co-exist with sprightly jazz-funk, R&B, and the light, orchestral grace that Ferrante has honed on synthesizer since the outstanding Greenhouse
The up-tempo "When the Lady Dances" starts with a jaunty piano intro before Ferrante and Mintzer fuse on boppish unison lines. Mintzer's unmistakable tenor bounces with R&B swagger over Pastorius' walking bass. Ferrante's singing right-hand response sounds equally celebratory. Ferrante and Mintzer are closely bound once again on the mellifluous "Civil War," with Ferrante on keyboards and Kennedy and Pastorius keeping it simple and in the pocket. Conventional in form these tunes may be, but they're also melodically, harmonically and rhythmically engaging. And as always, the Yellowjackets sound like no-one but themselves.
The funky piano ostinato on "Can't We Elope" tips a wink to pianist Herbie Hancock
's "Cantaloupe Island"; guest trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire
broadens the sonic palette in harmony with Mintzer before they alternate lively solos. Akinmusire and Mintzer are again protagonists on "An Informed Decision" but just when they seem set to really rip in an extended back and forth the song teasingly fades. Frustratingly, this is also the case on the boppish charger "An Amber Shade of Blue," though Akinmusire gets to exercise his considerable chops before the producer's accursed fade dial turns. It leaves you wanting more, which is what the band's memorable live shows are for.
The balladic "Longing" has an alluring cinematic grandeur, with Pastorius and Mintzer weaving a quiet spell over Ferrante's ethereal tinkling while Kennedy subtly stirs the pot. Pastorious displays heartfelt lyricism on another Ferrante ballad, ("You'll Know) When It's Time," while "Thank You" and "Madrugada" are elegant slices of Yellowjackets tune 'n' groove. The tropical air of "I Knew His Father" pays joyous tribute to Pastorius father, bassist Jaco Pastorius
whose Word of Mouth big band featured Mintzer in the early 1980s.
The road has been a long one for the Yellowjackets and rarely has it been straighthalf a dozen members have come and gone and as many record companies. Yet through it all the music has never stood still. On this showing, there are clearly plenty more laps of the planet left in the tank.