CD reviews

Yellowjackets + WDR Big Band – ‘Jackets XL’

Yellowjackets + WDR Big Band – Jackets XL
(Mack Avenue MAC1175. CD review by Peter Bacon)

The classy Cologne-based jazz orchestra has made many fine albums with illustrious guests but this one with the American jazz fusion quartet feels more cohesive than most. It’s easy to explain why. For a start, Yellowjackets’ saxophonist Bob Mintzer has held, since 2016, the post of chief conductor of the WDR Big Band. And then, there’s the instrumentation which means that the rhythm section of the big band is that of the quartet.

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The expanded ‘jackets programme takes the form of the quartet’s most popular tunes, some of them over 30 years old, as well as two new ones from keyboardist Russell Ferrante. Even the familiar titles sound box-fresh, with new arrangements, all Mintzer’s apart from Ferrante’s reworking of his tune Coherence, and a couple which WDR resident composer Vince Mendoza contributed. There is none of the “tacked on” feel that big band reworkings of small band jazz can sometimes fall down on. All here is beautifully tailored with invisible stitching between solos and ensemble features.

Most of the solos are taken by the Yellowjackets – Mintzer, Ferrante, drummer William Kennedy and bassist Dane Alderson – with the young Australian particularly impressive. He shows himself to be an electric bass master in the tradition of his celebrated forerunner in the band Jimmy Haslip, but very much his own man in terms of style and timbre. The low end of my hi-fi has rarely sounded richer.

Try One Day for the joy of a 14-piece moving with the fleet-footedness of a quartet through the intricate twists and turns Mintzer has scored for them; some trademark drumming from Kennedy here too. Ferrante’s Tokyo Tale, arranged by Mintzer, has a powerful tenor solo from the WDR’s Paul Heller and, again, some gorgeous interlocking playing between big band and quartet. Ferrante says his reworking of the delightful Coherence, from the 2016 Yellowjackets album of the same name, was influenced by studying a Maria Schneider score and seeing how she incorporated counter melodies. For real fusion tightness and the kind of playing at speed that has the musos in the audience dropping their jaws, try Imperial Strut.

The album’s closer, Revelation, from 1986, is the Yellowjackets in exuberant “let’s take this home” mode, and indeed this tune was, in its earlier form, often a concert encore. Here Mintzer mixes in some Gospel-style instrumental testifying into the arrangement and it grooves like hell.

The risk was that the litheness of the improvising quartet would be constrained by the necessarily increased formality of scoring for a large ensemble, with the sanitising of performance that might have resulted. A risk not only avoided here, but side-stepped with great panache. To my ears, not only one of the finest recordings the WDR band has made, but also fast becoming one of my go-to Yellowjackets discs.

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