If you enjoy the jazz music of artists such as Grover Washington, Lee Ritenour and David Sanborn…

Mack Avenue MAC 1196

Russell Ferrante (piano, keyboards); Bob Mintzer (tenor sax, soprano sax, EWI); Dale Alderson (electric bass, MIDI sequencing); Will Kennedy (drums); Jean Baylor (vocals track 8)
Recorded Capitol Records, LA 8-10 December 2021

Yellowjackets are a jazz-fusion band whose music is very accessible. It’s melodic, easy on the ear and superbly executed by a group of musicians who are masters of their instruments.

This arouses the suspicions of some jazz fans, who dismiss the band as a smooth jazz, easy-listening, lightweight combo. It’s a shame, because such attitudes mean missing out on some fine music.

The photo at the back of the CD cover seems designed to reinforce the fact that these are serious musicians. Ferrante, Kennedy and Mintzer stare blankly at the camera, while Alderson looks away, as if deep in thought.

The album could well have been called ‘Yellowjackets Uncoupled’ because it’s the band’s first release as a quartet since their 2016 album Coherence – since then, they’ve released musical collaboration albums with Brazilian singer Luciana Sanza (2018’s Raising Our Voice) and the WDR Big Band (2020’s Jackets XL).

Ferrante, Mintzer and Kennedy have played together for decades, while relative newcomer, bassist Dale Alderson joined the band seven years ago. No surprises that this is a group of musicians that really gel. All nine tunes have been composed by the band members – Ferrante and Mintzer each wrote three tunes; Alderson two and Kennedy, one.

‘Intrigue’ is a sleek jazz-funk number that reminds me of the music played by Chic Corea’s Elektric band, and Dale Alderson’s extended and supple bass solo brings to mind the fluent playing of John Patitucci. Ferrante breaks out with a piano solo that builds in intensity, while Mintzer plays the head on tenor sax, before taking a short solo. Kennedy’s crisp drumming drives the tune along. It’s a good opener.

The midtempo ‘Challenging Times’ starts with a circular piano riff and melodic bass lines, before Mintzer’s tenor joins in. Ferrante plays a swinging piano solo, ably supported by Kennedy– his drum fills are sharp and inventive. The title track is a sublime piece that starts off like a horse cantering across a field, before picking up speed towards the end. It’s a pleasant tune but not particularly memorable.

Much more satisfying is Alderson’s near-nine minute jazz-funk piece, ‘Onyx Manor’ with its mysterious sounding intro, slithering bass synth line and funky electric piano. Towards the end, Kennedy unleashes a series of pounding fills over a vamp played on a synthesiser. ‘Samaritan’ has a nice bossa-nova feel and you could imagine lying on a sunny beach listening to it.

‘Il Mio Amico’ (‘my friend’) is a sweet ballad featuring Mintzer’s breezy soprano sax phrases, violin-like synth lines, and lots of expressive piano playing from Ferrante.

‘Resilience’ offers another good slice of midtempo jazz-funk, with a thundering bass riff, heavy backbeat, sharp tenor lines and EWI blasts. The only time the band drifts towards MOR territory is with the syrupy ballad ‘If You Believe.’

Instrumentally the track is very satisfying – the tune has a nice melody, Alderson plays some lovely melodic lines on fretless bass, Ferrante’s piano lines flow like a mountain river, and Mintzer plays the tenor sax with much sensitivity.

But all this is accompanied by the vocals of Jean Baylor.

She is a fine vocalist, but with lines like: “If you believe in the power of love, to mend and heal a troubled world, when darkness falls and hope has gone, you’ll find the strength to carry on,” she sounds like Celine Delon singing over the closing credits of a Disney movie. Fortunately, the band redeems itself with the closing tune, ‘Early,’ with its relaxed syncopated drum pattern and catchy riff played by sax and keyboard.

This a very pleasant album – the music won’t make your pulse race and it’s not challenging to listen to. This is an observation and not criticism. If you enjoy the jazz music of artists such as Grover Washington, Lee Ritenour and David Sanborn, then the Yellowjackets will fit nicely with you. I certainly enjoyed it.

Reviewed by George Cole