A “rise in the road” connotes a challenge that needs to be met, and certainly a band that’s been around for thirty-two years has seen its share of them: line-up changes, major label drops, staying vital through the public’s changing tastes in music and of course, the alarming overall lack of interest in jazz. The Yellowjackets have perservered and even thrived through all of that. But the group sustained its biggest hit yet when co-founding bassist Jimmy Haslip left the group in 2012, eventually making the departure permanent. That meant that the last original member Russell Ferrante (piano, keys) and longtime members Bob Mintzer (tenor sax) and Will Kennedy (drums) had to find someone to fill those big shoes.
Well, the last name alone suggests they went big: Pastorius. As in, Felix Pastorius, the son of you-know-who.
Thus, the Yellowjackets second album for Mack Avenue will be their first with the new bassist. A Rise In The Road, due out next week, comes just two years after Timeline, suggesting a not only a willingness but outright anxiousness to carry on and meet the challenge head-on.
They go about that in a very businesslike manner, making the vintage Mintzer-era Yellowjackets album, effortlessly straddling the line between contemporary jazz and straight ahead jazz. That makes it seem perfunctory, but it’s not because making “old” jazz snap with a fresh, modern day vigor is probably harder to do than it sounds.
Mintzer’s songs tend to retain at least a tinge of bop in them, notably the strutting “When The Lady Dances” a crisp, mainstream jazz number, showing off it’s newly-reworked rhythm section in fine form. As on that tune, Mintzer tactfully combines with Ferrante for some unison lines on “Civil War” but with the keyboardist’s tastefully deployed synthesizer, this one has a more contemporary groove and a melodic development that in typical Yellowjackets fashion, is a level or two in sophistication above what their contemporaries are capable of doing. Referencing the time Mintzer had worked with Felix’s dad, “I Knew His Father” is an upbeat Latin-influenced coda to the album, with harmony lines not far removed from Weather Report songs.
Ferrante complements with more modern minded compositions, though he was clearly looking back on “Can’t We Elope.” It’s a conscience rewrite of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” with fast rising trumpet star Ambrose Akinmusire acting as a foil and partner to Mintzer. He devises a couple of songs that swap tempos between odd signatures and conventional, swinging ones for “An Informed Decision” and “An Amber Shade Of Blue,” playing a smooth, gospel inspired piano on the former and featuring Akinmusire with a serpentine solo on the latter.
The point of focus for any follower of the Yellowjackets listening to this album for the first time or two is going to be Pastorius, which is understandable. He doesn’t show the flash of his pedigree (you can find that flash in the above video if you need to hear him play a lot of lead bass) but he’s fundamentally sound, with a tone that’s really closer to Haslip’s than Jaco’s. “Thank You” with its light, percolating groove illustrates how he can sync up perfectly with Ferrante’s left hand and pick his notes with care. His overall approach serves him well with the material at hand and eases him into the band. His lone solo comes on the second-to-last track, “(You Know) When It’s Time,” the closest he sounds like his dad; very passionate and ethereal like him but his resonance is slightly different. Incidentally, he’s playing his father’s bass guitar on this record, loaned to him by its current owner, Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo.
There isn’t a single mediocre song on A Rise In The Road, in fact, this is as solid as a Yellowjackets record comes even though there are no home run tracks, either. That’s a real pleasant surprise given the considerable vacuum Haslip left behind. But Pastorius hadn’t filled in that vacuum in terms of leadership: he didn’t contribute any tracks and didn’t co-produce the album along with the older members. I have give the stalwarts the benefit of the doubt on this call; just to maintain in the wake of that blow can be considered a triumph, and ‘jackets fans shouldn’t pass on this album.
And also, remember how Jaco Pastorius with a relatively subdued debut on Weather Report’s Black Market blossomed into a fully equal member and unstoppable creative force by the next album Heavy Weather. The son could be following in his father’s footsteps. It’s worth watching what happens next.
A Rise In The Road drops on June 25, by Mack Avenue Records.