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JAZZ REVIEW

Yellowjackets' Straight-Ahead Club Gig

March 14, 1997|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Yellowjackets are not a band one ordinarily expects to see working in a jazz club. Large theaters with big crowds are the more common venues for a group that has been one of the most successful contemporary fusion jazz ensembles of the '80s and '90s.

This week, however, the Yellowjackets are making their first-ever Los Angeles nightclub appearance at Catalina Bar & Grill--an appearance that clearly seems to reflect the band's desire to reach out to the hard-core jazz audience. It is a trend that has been progressing since saxophonist-composer Bob Mintzer joined the Yellowjackets in 1991, gradually transforming the ensemble into an appealing if not quite yet top-level jazz band.

Appropriately, much of the Wednesday night set was devoted to material from their new Warner Bros. album, "Blue Hats," an album that keyboardist Russell Ferrante describes as "who we are . . . showing what we can do without elaborate production." With very little use of synthesizers or elaborate effects, the group played a straight-ahead program, typically balancing carefully crafted ensemble sections with plenty of blowing room for each of the four players. If there was a problem in an otherwise attractive program, it was the Yellowjackets' too-heavy dependency upon originals generated by the group members. The inclusion of more pieces from outside--even standards or jazz evergreens--would have made for a more consistently rewarding presentation.

Mintzer was, by almost any definition, the outstanding soloist. Although his slower playing--on tunes such as his original "Prayer for Piece"--sometimes seemed a bit too studied, he was open and free on his up-tempo outings. The highlight of the set, in fact, was a hard-driving blues in which Mintzer took chorus after chorus, building intensity and excitement without resorting to cheap crowd-pleasing tricks.

Ferrante, as always, was solid and dependable and interesting. Not a particularly emotional improviser, he nevertheless brings interest and imagination to his low-keyed playing. Bassist Jimmy Haslip, on the other hand, was almost always emotional. His showcase near the close of the set was a tour de force in which exuberant, snapping bass lines were accompanied by his passionate grunts and monochromatic humming. The near-capacity crowd loved every minute of it.

Surprisingly, little solo space was allocated to drummer William Kennedy, an imaginative improviser. But there was no questioning the effectiveness of his rhythmic energy throughout the set, which provided the buoyant wind beneath the Yellowjackets' wings.

* The Yellowjackets at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. $20 cover and two-drink minimum.

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