Sometimes the best move a band can make is to go indie. Consider Yellowjackets, who have been imbued with unquestionable instrumental credibility since emerging in the early '80s. Over their 25-year career Yellowjackets have veered from torch carriers of the latter-day, more structured incarnations of Weather Report to a group in dangerous proximity to smooth jazz territory. In the process of racking up nearly twenty recordings, the group's technical prowess has never been in question, but some of its choices in direction were more than a little suspect, especially during its middle period on the lightweight GRP label. Still, with a return to Warner Brothers in the mid-'90s, it seemed that the group was regaining its sense of focus and adventure.
But it ultimately took leaving the major labels behind to allow the band to go in a direction that would lean more towards an acoustic ambience, where the electronics are more subtly and better-integrated. With the release of the '02 live set Mint Jam, Yellowjackets began to assert their commitment to creating music that retained their accessibility while introducing a degree of challenge that would give them more edge. Featuring arguably their best lineup ever, with founding members Russell Ferrante on keyboards and the outstanding Jimmy Haslip on bass, Bob Mintzer on multiple woodwinds, and newcomer Marcus Baylor on drums, Yellowjackets went on to release '03's Time Squared, demonstrating that the leaner, meaner approach of Mint Jam was no fluke. It's also clear that Heads Up International, the label that picked Yellowjackets up on the merits of Mint Jam, is content to leave the group alone, and that's a wise move because rarely, if ever, have Yellowjackets sounded this good.
After a slight left turn with its Christmas album Peace Round, Yellowjackets are back with a new studio record. Altered State features more of the irregular meters and idiosyncratic yet singable themes that have made the last couple of discs so rewarding. From the Latin-inflected 5/4 Ferrante piece "Hunter's Point to "Mother Earth, a funky Haslip composition with a 16th-note figure that is reverential to the late Jaco Pastorius without sacrificing Haslip's own personality, the group doesn't break any new ground, instead consolidating and affirming its more recent direction.
As key as Ferrante and Haslip have been to Yellowjackets' sound since the beginning, the contribution that Mintzer has made since joining in '90 cannot be underestimated. A strong composer, arranger, and performer on all manner of reed instruments, Mintzer has broadened the group's palette considerably and helped move it in a more organic direction. And Baylor combines a strong groove sensibility with a light-and-loose touch that makes the odd-metered tunes dance.
"The Hope, featuring Baylor's wife Jean, is perhaps the group's only concession to radio play, but is rooted more in gospel and soul than smooth jazz. Which leaves the rest of Altered Statean album that will appeal to fans of the group's post-major label work, and well worth checking out by those who don't need their jazz to be 100% pure.
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