Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Yellowjackets - In Concert

I have to confess I pretty much ignored the Yellowjackets during the first couple dozen years of their existence. Despite the presence of original guitarist Robben Ford, the band struck me as somewhere between the bland pop-jazz of Spyro Gyra and the formulaic, barely-improvised stylings of so-called “smooth jazz”.

But then about, maybe, four years ago, the Yellowjackets made an appearance at the 1891 Fredonia House. I went to the concert for three reasons. For one thing, my wife loves smooth jazz (and has raised my tolerance of the genre, though not my admiration), and wherever she wants to go, I gladly follow. Two, we serve as semi-regular volunteer ushers at the Opera House, so we get in free. But perhaps most significantly, three – despite the continuing excellence of SUNY Fredonia’s much-honored jazz program (under the direction of former Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman baritone saxist Bruce Johnstone), big-name jazz artists rarely make concert appearances in our fair town. (I didn’t say never, just rarely.)

To my surprise, I was quickly won over. The Yellowjackets turned out to be substantially more powerful than the blatantly commercial lightweights I was expecting, first-rate musicians, both technically and creatively. This was music of substance, of imagination, of emotional impact, of originality. I’m glad to report that this newly issued DVD on the German Inakustik label (distributed in the US by MVD), recorded for the German television concert series “Ohne Filter” in 1994, captures all the energy and excitement that won me over during the band’s Fredonia appearance.

There are 7 selections on this disc, everyone a highlight in its way. Right from the very beginning, with “Man Facing North” (primarily a feature for the deft six-string bass of Jimmy Haslip), a strong interplay of rhythms, arrangement, lyricism, and virtuosity by all four members of the band is constantly in evidence. The Yellowjackets work their way through fusion, light funk, melodic music of an accessible nature, and straight-ahead jazz. Saxman Bob Mintzer is particularly solid and fully in-command on the straight-ahead pieces, such as the hard-driving “One Music.” Keyboardist Russell Ferrante is especially impressive on “Dewey (For Miles”), in which he conjures up a Davis-like muted-trumpet solo on synthesizer. Will Kennedy (who is no longer with the group) may not be the flashiest drummer you’ll ever hear, but he is tasteful, always appropriate, and rhythmically inventive.

There are a few “Features” on the disc as well, none of them particularly indispensable. There’s a text biography of the band, which is interesting enough so far as it goes. I might point out that this bio defines “fusion music” as “the fusion of jazz improvisation and smooth pop melodies.” Those who remember the golden era of “Bitches Brew” and “The Inner Mounting Flame” will recall that the original application of the word referred to the fusion of jazz and rock. But realistically, I suppose this re-definition represents the directions “fusion” took after the initial excitement of the early days wore off. There is also an alphabetical listing of artists who have appeared on “Ohne Filter,” which whets one’s appetite for further DVD’s from the series. A six-minute interview with the program’s producer will be of primary interest to those who’ve seen it on a regular basis. I can only wish we had something like it in the U.S. The fourth featurette, “Sound Tuning” begins as a brief introduction to sound mixing before becoming essentially an ad for Inakustik cables.

But the concert is what really counts, and it’s well worth the price of admission. . Due to the time limitations of television, the concert is only 57 minutes long, and I found myself wanting much, much more. Check this one out.

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