(originally published in JazzTimes)
Yellowjackets, “A Rise in the Road” (Mack Avenue Records)
For Yellowjackets’ 22nd album, pianist Russell Ferrante, the band’s sole remaining founding member, is joined by tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer (23-year member), drummer William Kennedy (14-year member, over two different stints) and new bassist Felix Pastorius, born five years after the band’s 1977 start. Pastorius, one of Jaco’s twin sons, replaces Jimmy Haslip, also a cofounder. While there’s something a bit karmic about all of this, as Mintzer once played with Jaco’s Word of Mouth Big Band and sextet, Haslip’s permanent departure is a bit of a shock—his playing and occasional writing were integral to the band’s sound. And yet … Yellowjackets still sounds like Yellowjackets, a perfectly combustible electric-acoustic outfit whose smart, often challenging and unpredictable compositions draw from fusion, postbop and contemporary jazz.
The program is about evenly split between tunes by Mintzer and Ferrante, with the long lines, flurried notes, airtight grooves and invigorating solos of the saxophonist’s “When the Lady Dances” opening the CD. That’s followed by his “Civil War,” a piece that, with its pastel tonality, singsong melody and a mellow unison tenor-bass passage, hints at a sort of Americana. Mintzer also provides “Thank You” and the aptly titled “I Knew His Father,” which hints at the type of Caribbean rhythms that inspired Felix’s dad.
Felix, wielding Jaco’s storied fretless Bass of Doom on several tracks, handily drives the music, easily locking in with Kennedy but largely staying restrained, really breaking out only on one track, Ferrante’s “(You’ll Know) When It’s Time”; the fretless-and-tenor combination can’t help nod to Weather Report. Three of Ferrante’s tunes, including “Can’t We Elope,” with its initial “Cantaloupe Island”-like groove, and the multi-segmented “An Amber Shade of Blue,” make smart use of fast-rising trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire as a foil for Mintzer. Adjustments made. Flight path cleared.