The Yellowjackets Enter Fifth Decade With Uplifting ‘Parallel Motion’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The Yellowjackets, long considered a bastion of jazz fusion, have been together as a band for four decades now but as they enter their fifth, Parallel Motion, is practically a new introduction to their full quartet sound. Part of that is because their last two projects have been collaborative with 2018’s Raising Our Voice, backing Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza and 2020’s Jackets XL recorded with the WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany. We now get the hear the band as saxophonist Bob Mintzer says, “in four equal parts” and we should add that, in keeping with efforts of the past decade and especially following bassist Jimmy Haslip’s departure in 2012, it’s no longer all fusion oriented: in fact, it’s mostly straight-ahead. 

Founding pianist/keyboardist Russell Ferrante is the only member who has been a constant since the band’s debut in 1981 but the others have considerable tenure, notably drummer Will Kennedy, who after his first stint from 1987-89, returned in 2010 and has remained. Mintzer, who plays both tenor and soprano, has been a steady member since 1990 and the electric bassist, Dane Alderson, has been in the fold for seven years. This is the band’s twenty-sixth release and sixth for Mack Avenue Records. It’s a democratic composing effort with all members contributing – Ferrante (3), Mintzer (3), Alderson (2), and Kennedy (1).

Mintzer’s “Intrigue” opens with its start-stop rhythms, the band’s singable melodies present, as well as unexpected turns.  Alderson weighs in after Mintzer’s opening statement with a robust, lyrical tone on his electric bass, handing the baton to Ferrante for a shimmering piano excursion as Kennedy keeps it moving, at times pausing to curtly address Mintzer’s lines. Mintzer also authors the title track, kicked off by Kennedy’s rim shots and the composer’s lush tenor tones as it glides smoothly in mid-tempo, punctuated by Ferrante’s glistening pianism.  Mintzer kicks it up a notch, blowing more fiercely as he takes it out. Mintzer’s third contribution, “Resilience,” resembles the opener in its stuttering rhythms, the kind of tune that requires tight communication with Kennedy keeping the rudder steady. 

Ferrante has three as well. ‘Challenging Times” begins with Alderson playing his bass like a guitar, Jaco Pastorious style, setting it up for Mintzer’s free flowing tenor, interlocking piano and drums, before Mintzer returns carrying a lilting melody. “Il Mio Amico” (“My New Friend”) is a piano feature, extolling the virtues of Ferrante’s new Fazzioli piano (same brand favored by Herbie Hancock). Mintzer soars on a lovely, clear-toned soprano, perfectly complementing the pianist’s lush sequences. “If You Believe” features the one guest, Jean Baylor of The Baylor Project, who has recorded with the band before, given that her husband Marcus Baylor was the band’s drummer from 2000-2010. Few of today’s vocalists have the combination of soul and gospel as Jean Baylor, prompting this writer to compare her favorably to Aretha in past reviews of The Baylor Project. The delicate balladry here shows that the band can play with restraint when called for, as they remain in service to the song, Mintzer beautifully delivering the melody that Baylor initiated.

Alderson’s “Early” evokes the fusion side with its R&B groove, Ferrante’s Fender Rhodes, and Mintzer’s Grover Washington Jr.- like approach. The bassist’s “Onyx Manor,” the lengthiest track at almost nine minutes, feels more through-composed rather than jam-like as “Early.” It too, finds Ferrante on Fender Rhodes, playing wonderful unison passages with Mintzer while intermittently branching out into spacier realms, underpinned by the bubbling bass and Kennedy’s rock-solid pulse.  Kennedy, in his one original, brings the most melodic piece of the nine, with “Samaritan,” a tune originally written with vocals. Mintzer aptly fills the vocal void, stating the singable melody, a Yellowjackets hallmark trait. 

The Yellowjackets sound as vital and tight as they ever have. Welcome to decade number five. 

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