A Rise in the Road, the latest release from the pioneer jazz-fusion group Yellowjackets has been largely met with mixed reviews. This is an album that fans either have loved or hated. There seems to be little to no grey area at all with this album. But in this critic’s own personal opinion, the band has never sounded better. This latest record takes audiences back to the days of Blue Hats and other similar previous Yellowjackets releases. Gone are the electric additions used in so many of the band’s other albums. This is a fully acoustic record that is perfection from start to finish.
The band writes in the liner notes of its new album, “It’s hard to believe that Yellowjackets is now thirty-two years old. No thirty-two year journey is one long stretch of level highway. Along the way, one invariably encounters a rise in the road…We now find ourselves moving purposefully with renewed energy up that rise in the road.” That could not have been better stated. Right from the album’s opener, ‘When The Lady Dances’, one gets images of a high class jazz club, and people dancing happily, while others enjoy a drink at the bar. One can almost see a camera panning and zooming slowly, focusing on one woman in particular. She is dressed quite well, dancing quite happily with her male partner. Being the album’s opener, it is a perfect first impression from the band, whose most recent album, Timeline, was released two years ago. Founding member Bob Mintzer has never sounded better as he presents the main musical storyline on his sax. And drummer Will Kennedy, who returns after being absent from the band for many years, keeps a solid backbeat offering a certain extra “seasoning” where needed. Much the same can be said of longtime keyboardist Russell Ferrante.
The band members offer listeners plenty of energy in the first half of its new album. So it’s just fitting that when it reaches its mid-point, the band slows things down quite a bit. ‘Longing’ is another of those pieces that is so fittingly titled. Again, Ferrante shines here. This time, he partners with new bassist Felix Pastorius to paint a fully encompassing and touching musical picture. Listeners get in ‘Longing’ perhaps a Central Park scene in early Fall. Someone is standing on a small bridge over a stream, leaves falling around them, a cool breeze blowing. This person could be a man or woman. And the person in question is contemplating perhaps a missed chance at love or another social situation. Ferrante’s gentle strains on the keyboards present that deep emotion and the setting alongside Pastorius’ bass lines. Kennedy’s drumming and cymbal work serve to finalize that picture. It all comes together to make ‘Longing’ one of the highest of highs on this record. For those wondering why Pastorius’ name sound familiar, it should. He is the son of the late great Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius. As the band writes in its liner notes, its members had been friends with Jaco for many years before his passing. So it was just fitting that he filled the shoes of longtime bassist Jimmy Haslip.
The musical pictures painted through A Rise in the Road run the gamut. Regardless of the scene and emotion, those pictures are so rich and vivid. And just as the band can paint some rich musical pictures and textures, it can also pain quite the thought provoking picture, too. A prime example of the band’s ability to do so comes in ‘An Amber Shade of Blue.’ One could argue that the bizarre musical tapestry painted in this near seven-minute song harkens back to the golden era of bop. Ferrante’s piano licks, Kennedy’s polyrhythmic patterns, and the trumpet playing of guest musician Ambrose Akinmusire feels entirely improvisational here, versus the more structured vibe of the album’s other songs. A comparison to music from Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool could be made with this song. It is one more example of what makes A Rise in the Road such an outstanding album from this group of highly talented veteran musicians. It’s an example of why any fan of this veteran jazz act should give this record at least one listen. Many might find after one listen that it’s worth well more than just one listen. It’s worth every listen every time.
European fans of the band will get to see the band live this month as it makes its way across the continent. It will perform in Copenhagen two nights on October 18th and 19th before heading to Germany on the 21st, 22nd, and 25th. The band will wind down 2013 with a performance in North Carolina’s “Queen City” on December 14th. The band will be at the Knight Theatre in Charlotte at 8pm that evening. Information on other tour dates and more is available online at http://www.yellowjackets.com and http://www.facebook.com/yellowjacketsmusic. And to keep up with the latest sports and entertainment reviews and news, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it. Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment reviews and news in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.