The clamor of the crowd faded to a murmur as the foursome made their way to the stage. Gene Dobbs Bradford stepped to the microphone to welcome everybody to the new season and introduce a band that needs no introduction. With well over three decades of history, Yellowjackets have made a few changes to their line-up since their emerging from the Robben Ford Group, but they have continued to grow throughout. While keyboardist Russell Ferrante is the only original member remaining, drummer William Kennedy and saxophonist Bob Mintzer have been fundamental members of the group since the early 1990's, only adding bassist Felix Pastorius as a new member for the current tour.
Highlighting material from their new album "A Rise in the Road," the group pulled from their seemingly endless selection of original music throughout the night, ranging in style from traditional and straight-forward jazz to fusion with flavors of blues and funk. Most songs started modestly, often with soft, melodic intros and lively main phrases lead by Mintzer, but broken-down solos quickly built to full band grooves before progressing to the next segment. The sets and even the entire evening mimicked this design, building in intensity over three or four songs and then returning to a calmer base before repeating the process all over again. As a band, they often featured segments of unison and balanced it with call and returns and duet styled musical conversations, proving a strong chemistry beyond their sheer talent as musicians and composers.
Bob Mintzer took the helm on stage and often found himself in the forefront of the music. With a background in arranging big bands, he lead the quartet effortlessly and had a strong appreciation for the other musicians on stage with him. He often took the first solo after establishing the songs' main tune and set the tone for the others to follow. Very few people can make playing the saxophone seem so easy, never faltering in his ability to create endless phrases and sequences of riffs without any deliberate attention to breathing or fingering. A few times throughout the night, Mintzer set down his saxophone and opted to use an Akai EWI (electric wind instrument,) which offered a number of tones and effects often unheard in jazz and even more rarely in the hands of such an accomplished player.
William Kennedy was an obvious fan favorite among the younger members of the audience. Beyond Yellowjackets, he has been involved with many other musicians as well as movie soundtracks and serving as house band drummer for the Wayne Brady Show. While many drummers may strive to be creative with innovative cymbal modifications and different tools to hit, scrape or brush against their drums, Kennedy used a traditional set-up and wowed the with his pure ability to deliver countless variations in perfect time and pull accentuating hits out of any rhythm.
While Russell Ferrante may be the only original member from the groups roots in the late 1970's and Felix Pastorius only joined the group earlier this year, the two seemed in simpatico on stage, impressive as much in their ability to improvise a background groove as in their skills as soloists. Ferrante was afforded many chances to impress on the lead, intensely committed to his solos with a strained, wide grin, juggling styles freely and even seamlessly during his segments. Pastorius, son of the legendary Jaco Pastorius, took a little while to break from his shell, never soloing until the end of the first set, but incredibly active in the second. He sat perched on a bar stool, tapping his enormous, white Chuck Taylors as he played. His hands can only be described as having a wingspan as he danced up and down the frets, often ending already impressive phrases with mindboggling, quick and dynamically pitched closes.
With opening night under wraps, Jazz at the Bistro is primed for an extraordinary weekend with Yellowjackets on stage to start a season that promises to be armed with potent and influential masters of the jazz arts.
When the Lady Dances
Out of Town
Why Is It?
Spirit of the West
Amber Shade of Blue
All photos by Wil Wander.