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Yellowjackets: Blue Hats

Douglas Payne By

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Fortunately, the Yellowjackets—and Blue Hats in particular '" prove that slick, contemporary jazz can be accessible and creative, interesting music too. More often than not, this quartet, featuring the wonderful Russell Ferrante on piano and synths, Jimmy Haslip on bass, Bob "Big-Band" Minzter on reeds and William Kennedy on drums, makes radio-friendly instrumental music that stands up surprisingly well as thoughtful, interactive jazz. While Blue Hats is this listener's first experience with the Yellowjackets (formed way back in 1981 by guitarist Robben Ford), it is a most pleasant experience. It is a terrific group enterprise, with the many contributions of pianist Ferrante clear standouts.

Ferrante's "Statue of Liberty" successfully works the "Freedom Jazz Dance" groove—finding Mintzer dancing hot on bass clarinet and Ferrante in an inspired bit of Keith Jarrett standards-trio mode (ever wonder how David Murray on a quiet day and the lately-restrained Jarrett might sound together?). "Coal Minor Blues" (good title—another from Ferrante) finds the pianist in a more Tyner-esque mode; inspiring Fortune smiles out of Mintzer. The tracks which find Ferrante's tasteful use of synthesizer in the background ("Savanna," "New Rochelle," where Mintzer sounds like Pat Metheny (!) on EWI, and "Coquimbo") to these ears, force Mintzer and company to explore Sadao Watanabe terrain (when Dave Grusin was the point man).

The real charmer here, though, is found on the first track; the fusionistic "Capetown." Although it's Mintzer who's center stage here, it's the infrequently backgrounded Ferrante who makes this track a real treat. His Dave Grusin-meets-Dollar Brand rendering provides "Capetown" with terrific musical comments: quick Gospel fills, sensitive comping and Grusin's knack for spit-clean riffs.

The group excels again on "With These Hands" (Mintzer suggesting Ernie Watts here) and on the ballad "Prayer for Peace," a soft, mellow groove that invites popular attention.

One annoyance, however, must be stated. Too many of the tunes on Blue Hats fade into silence. This suggests pop recording more than jazz performances. Even if this is the case, the 'Jackets are clearly above this crap. It denigrates their creativity. Producer Matt Pierson, an accomplished producer who has recently recorded some notable jazz for Warner Bros. (Joshua Redman, Bob James), should know better. What we really need is to have the Yellowjackets recorded live. But, for the time being, Blue Hats offers some nice moments worth checking out.

Title: Blue Hats | Year Released: 1997 | Record Label: Warner Bros.

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