On 25th Album,Yellowjackets Join Forces with the WDR Big Band on ‘Jackets XL’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

With acclaimed tenor saxophonist/ EWI player Bob Mintzer doubling as a member of the four decades standing Yellow Jackets (of which he is a three decade member) and as conductor of the superb WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany since 2016, there was perhaps an inevitability of this recording. We have seen Mintzer expand the scope of the renowned big band, having issued Blue Soul with guitarist Dave Stryker this past May, also covered on these pages. Collaborating with the explorative Yellowjackets seems only natural, entitled Jackets XL  to mark the band’s 25th album. The project combines the shapeshifting, multiple GRAMMY® Award-winning quartet with the renowned big band, re-imagining well-known band originals with dynamic new arrangements that feature twists and turns, textures and colors, moving harmonies and bold solos.

The current Yellow Jackets lineup also comprises founder, keyboardist Russell Ferrante, drummer Will Kennedy and electric bassist Dane Alderson in his third recording for the group. Ferrante welcomed the project given that he had been involved in playing Mintzer’s arrangements in different settings over the years. The concept was to pick fan favorites and rearrange them inventively. Mintzer rearranged “Mile High” [Four Corners, 1987], which they had stopped playing in recent years. Mintzer also brought the usual encore piece “Revelation” [Shades, 1986 back to its gospel roots, and arranged it for the way the Yellow Jackets render the tune today 36 years later.

While Mintzer rearranged seven of the ten tunes (he says it’s almost like watching your children grow up), also in the mix were two arrangements by Vince Mendoza who had a long history with the WDR Big Band and today serves as its composer in residence. Both the lyrical gem “Even Song” with its rock charge [Run for Your Life, 1993] and the swing-with-gusto “Downtown” [Live Wires (Live at the Roxy), 1991] feature his arrangements. Ferrante wrote a new arrangement for his song “Coherence” from the band’s 2016 Cohearence album. “I wanted to give it a more orchestral feel beyond just the big band sound,” he says. “I wanted to include different instrumentation like muted trumpet, French horn, trombones. I had been inspired by Maria Schneider’s music. I bought a package from her website of her tune ’Hang Gliding.’ I studied the score, watched a video of her band performing it. As a result, I made ‘Coherence’ rounder, writing other lines and counter melodies.”

Not content with a complete set of “oldies,” Ferrante added two new songs, including the upbeat “One Day,” a scamper featuring Mintzer on EWI. It was originally written for 2018’s studio album Raising Our Voice but didn’t make the final sequence. Then there’s “Tokyo Tale,” originally written with a small band arrangement for Ferrante’s USC students, transformed here for the large 20+ member ensemble. Although the big band creates a colorful, brassy, blaring wall of sound, the signature electric/acoustic sound of the Yellow Jackets appears in expressive solos from its four members. Notwithstanding Mintzer’s many solos, check out Ferrante’s keyboard excursion on “Mile High” or Alderson’s bass solo on “Even Song” as just two examples. The challenge, Ferrante says, was relinquishing the total freedom of the quartet setting, forcing an economy of expression.

As a band you can change parts and make things different. But with the big band you have tight arrangements. There’s no freelancing. Even when you’re playing the notes that you know so well, the big band arrangements mean that you have to read the music and be really focused. Otherwise things can stick out.”

Just as we’ve come to expect from the Yellow Jackets this music is highly energetic, filled with grooves, a few comic turns, and joyous moments. Mintzer claims that it was like putting a whole new set of clothes on. Said another way, it’s like that favorite painting which takes on a whole new quality with a new frame that allows the viewer to focus even more clearly on the art. That’s what the WDR Big Band does. They frame the band’s sound, making it even more newly distinctive and brighter. 

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