Album reviews

Yellowjackets – ‘Parallel Motion’

Yellowjackets – Parallel Motion
(Mack Avenue MAC1196. Album review by Peter Bacon)

As a descriptor the label “jazz fusion band – it appears in the Yellowjackets’ Wikipedia entry – has always struck me as limiting and a touch inappropriate. Sure, they were clearly in the fusion neck of the woods when they made that first bee-bedecked debut album back in 1981, but 40 years is a long time in the life of any band, never mind one as inquisitive and reluctant to repeat itself as this one. 

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My own familiarity with their music stems from what might be considered their rebirth at the beginning of this century and the double live album Mint Jam. By that time original members keyboardist Russell Ferrante and bassist Jimmy Haslip had been joined by saxophonist Bob Mintzer and drummer Marcus Baylor, and it was this quartet that would develop all that tricksy-timed stuff so beloved of the fusioneers into a more contemporary and inclusive electro-acoustic jazz style. Mintzer brought his big band writing and arranging skills to the party and Baylor added a funky and soulful feel.

The departure of Baylor and Haslip was bound to upset the balance a little. The return of William Kennedy to the drum chair (he had preceded Baylor in the band) was a no-brainer and Felix  Pastorius had the unenviable task of filling Haslip’s shoes. The resulting music was fine, Ferrante and Mintzer continued writing strong music and it was all beautifully played, but in retrospect it feels like a period of treading water.

The arrival of Australian whizkid Dane Alderson on six-string electric bass in 2015 has, to my ears, brought us a revitalised Yellowjackets. To draw an analogy with the arrival in Weather Report of Felix’s dad, Jaco, the effects might not have been quite as dramatic, but not only has Alderson brought a strong and highly personal sound and writing to the band, but his elders sound revitalised too by his presence.

Their first release, Cohearence, was possibly too early to feel the full Alderson effect, and the gorgeous Raising Our Voice with Luciana Souza and cinemascope reworkings of classic ‘Jackets tunes with the WDR Big Band in Jackets XL were ploughing parallel furrows, so Parallel Motion presents us with the real flowering of this particular quartet.

And it’s a thing of great strength and beauty. Ferrante’s neo-classical writing (Challenging Times) and Mintzer’s rock-solid jazz tunes (Intrigue, Resilience) are supplemented by Alderson’s clear delight in re-inventing some of that ol’ 20th century fusion in a thoroughly modern manner (Onyx Manor), and Kennedy contributes the pretty breather (Samaritan).

The performances on this album have that seamless amalgamation of masterful technique with a deeply-felt soulfulness, all overlaid by an at times almost delirious sense of joy. It all goes, for this listener anyway, to fill the chest with excitement and prompts an abiding smile of gratitude that music like this exists and has been made available to flow from my hi-fi speakers.

Parallel Motion is released today, Friday 26 August. Yellowjackets are currently touring and come to the Jazz Cafe in London on 24 October.

LINK: Yellowjackets website 

Purchase Parallel Motion

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