Saturday, June 10, 2006

Yellowjackets, Once Smooth, Are Now a Lot Choppier

Fusion has long been an ugly stepchild in jazz circles; it appears in most official histories as the byproduct of compromise and contamination. That critique has serious flaws, starting with the premise that jazz possessed a fundamental purity in the first place. But it's largely true that fusion, born in the late 1960's as an intrepid hybrid of jazz, rock and soul, produced a glut of music that was bombastic or bathetic, and sometimes both at once.

Yellowjackets, a quartet, occupies a curious place in this lineage. Built at first around the nucleus of the guitarist Robben Ford, the group has spent most of the last 25 years perfecting a guitarless fusion that's much more sinewy than steroidal, with infusions of gospel, funk and rhythm and blues. Often the results have crept in the direction of smooth jazz, a format that Yellowjackets inadvertently helped to create. But the band's standards of musicianship and athleticism have always smacked of something more serious, and lately, more straight-ahead.

That's especially true in performance, as Yellowjackets confirmed at Iridium on Wednesday night. Kicking off a five-night run and what amounts to a six-month tour, the group offered a retrospective sampling of original material, in commemoration of its silver anniversary; the same impulse recently yielded "Twenty-Five" (Heads Up), a live CD and DVD that documents a pair of concerts from last fall.

Two of the original Yellowjackets, the keyboardist Russell Ferrante and the bassist Jimmy Haslip, are still on active duty. The band's other half consists of the tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer, an official member since 1992, and the drummer Marcus Baylor, who joined in 2000. In the five or so years since this lineup was introduced, it has equaled or eclipsed its predecessors.

To a large extent that's because of Mr. Baylor, a powerful drummer who brings a sense of deep-pocket groove to the band's rhythmically convoluted compositions. On "Jacket Town," which closed Wednesday's late set, Mr. Baylor whipped up a double-time gospel backbeat that overrode a 5/4 meter. He was subtler, but no less spirited, on an R & B ballad called "The Hope," featuring vocals by Jean Baylor, his wife.

Mr. Haslip is the other clear powerhouse in the group; his six-stringed electric bass can sound round and meaty or light and nimble. His walking line on "Prayer for Peace" suggested the heft and swing of an upright acoustic player, while his solos were guitarlike, blistering excursions.

Neither Mr. Mintzer nor Mr. Ferrante managed anything quite so flashy, but their rapport was impressive and clearly central to the balance of the group. Each hit a high point on "Greenhouse": Mr. Ferrante demonstrated his solid riff-based style on piano and synthesizer and Mr. Mintzer crafted an effectively imploring closing cadenza.

Performances continue through Sunday at Iridium Jazz Club, 1650 Broadway, at 51st Street; (212) 582-2121.

Jazz Review

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