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Ever since saxophonist Bob Mintzer joined the Yellowjackets in 1990, the band has been edging closer and closer to the jazz mainstream. Fortunately the 'jackets haven't foresaken the melodicsm that's been their hallmark for 17 years. Club Nocturne delivers jazzy bop, angular fusion, gospel, New Orleans second-line rhythms, smooth vocals, lush ballads and airy soundscapes. Every cut on this CD is appealing, but the ballads are especially fetching.
The Yellowjackets have worked with a number of singers in the past, including Brenda Russell, Take 6, Michael Franks and Bobby McFerrin. Club Nocturne contains four collaborations with vocalists, and all are outstanding. The quartet provides beautiful accompaniment on two tracks featuring scat hipster Kurt Elling, one with South African singer-guitarist Jonathan Butler, and one with LA songstress Brenda Russell.
"Even the Pain" is a moving soul ballad sung in fervent fashion by Butler, who lends the song an African undertone. Elling penned "Up From New Orleans," a tune that's both a lesson in jazz history and a playful excursion in second-line bop. Elling also wrote the lyrics to Mintzer's "All is Quiet," a gorgeous impressionistic ballad. Russ Ferrante's keyboard atmospherics lend an orchestral quality to this cut, and also to my favorite vocal track, Russell's "Love and Paris Rain," a dreamy piece featuring Russell's graceful voice and a dulcet solo by Mintzer.
The instrumental tracks are equally effective. Spirit of the West is one of those spacious heartland-jazz concoctions that the Yellowjackets handle so effectively. "The Evening News" combines funk with bop and features some adroit syncopations by drummer Will Kennedy and funky support from bassist Jimmy Haslip. My favorite cut is "Twilight for Nancy," a lucid aural-painting of nightfall.
Ferrante's distinctive piano and Mintzer's soprano and tenor saxophones lead the way on the instrumental tracks. Ferrante's electric keyboards are subtle and airy throughout, and they form the core of the Yellowjacket's characteristic sound.
Over the course of 14 albums, the Yellowjackets have gravitated from radio-friendly rhythm-and-jazz to modern electric jazz that's more bop than pop. They continue to explore new creative territory while generating music that's both accessible and substantive. Club Nocturne is a mellow but captivating effort.