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Jazz Review

Yellowjackets Steer the Focus From Fusion to More Mainstream

November 21, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There were no personnel changes in the Yellowjackets band that showed up at the House of Blues Thursday night. Bob Mintzer continues to take the lead with saxophones and Electronic Wind Instrument; Russell Ferrante holds down the keyboard chair; and bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Will Kenney provide the rhythm section foundation.

It's a combination that has provided some of the most attractive jazz fusion for years.

But not Thursday night. And the band's appearance--in terms of the music performed--was an interesting indication of the pressures faced by groups in the more commercially-driven contemporary/fusion wing of the jazz arena.

Last year, the Yellowjackets performed at Catalina Bar & Grill in support of "Blue Hats," a relatively straight-forward, mainstream-oriented album that displayed the band's impressive jazz skills.

This time out, the Yellowjackets were supporting "Club Nocturne," an album that features vocals from Brenda Russell, Jonathan Butler and Kurt Elling, and a collection of instrumental tracks clearly aimed at audience accessibility.

The differences were striking, especially when Russell and Butler came on stage as guest artists to reproduce their songs with the band. Well-done, well-played, it was music aimed at making a connection, which is precisely what it did with a full-house, vocally enthusiastic crowd.

Within this Yellowjackets framework--far different from that of their Catalina appearance--Mintzer continued to insist upon taking a solid jazz stance. His improvisations, filled with long, interrelated lines, provided the most musically nutritious passages of the evening.

And, in the moments when Kennedy joined Mintzer, setting aside his funk passages in favor of a more multitiered rhythmic style, the music sparked to life. More often, the soloing--especially from Ferrante and Haslip--drifted into busy, fast-note, melodically slim improvising.

And that was as musically unfortunate as was the decision to shift from last year's impressive jazz outings to this year's calculatedly commercial music.

The Yellowjackets are a band with the ability to soar freely as a jazz ensemble. But this time around, they're having trouble getting off the ground.

Guitarist Marc Antoine opened the evening with a pedestrian-sounding smooth jazz set that came to life, paradoxically, when he was joined onstage by another smooth jazz guitarist, Peter White. Go figure.

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