When an obviously successful band has been together for more than 30 years, personnel changes have to be expected despite the successes of the collaboration. The Yellowjackets have been around for 32 years; the quartet anchored by the keyboards of Russell Ferrante and the bass of Jimmy Haslip had gone through lineup changes over the years, but last year when Haslip decided the time was ripe to take some time to pursue other projects and devote more time to his family, it had the potential to be less a change than an upheaval. Luckily for fans, this is a band that knows how to deal with change. If A Rise in the Road, their second release for Mack Avenue Records is any indication, they may miss Haslip, but they haven’t let that stop them and have found the way to move on.
Joining Ferrante, saxophonist Bob Mintzer (a band member for 23 years) and drummer William Kennedy (a member for 14 years in two shifts) in the Yellowjackets’ current configuration is Felix Pastorius, a bassist with a well-known name and an impressive pedigree. Felix is the son of the icon of the jazz-fusion bass, best known for his stint with Weather Report, Jaco Pastorius. Mintzer, who had played some with Jaco in his later days and had also worked some with Felix, had been impressed with his talent. After an impressive audition, Felix joined the band in 2012. Taking the personnel change as an opportunity to grow, they began to feel each other out and develop the kind of rapport essential to creative collaboration. What they achieved is on display in A Rise in the Road.
The essential character of their music, jazz-fusion, is unchanged. Indeed, if there is any real difference, they point out that there is perhaps less use of overdubbing than there is on their prior albums. This album focuses on the four men playing live. They may miss Haslip, but from the new album, it’s hard to tell if that’s truly the case.
The album’s 10 tracks are all original compositions by members of the band: five are by Ferrante, four by Mintzer and one by Kennedy. Three tracks feature guest trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, a past winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition as well as the Carmen Caruso International Trumpet Solo Competition. He has a vibrant sound that adds a dynamic level to Ferrante’s “An Amber Shade of Blue” and “An Informed Decision.” He also plays on “Can’t We Elope,” Ferrante’s punning take on Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” a title for which he should be pun-ished. Ferrante’s “Longing” and “(You’ll Know) When It’s Time” are both lush melodies played with haunting sensitivity by Mintzer.
Mintzer’s own contributions include “When the Lady Dances,” which opens the album on a funky note, “Civil War,” and the swinging “Thank You.” His “I Knew His Father” was written as a kind of welcome to the band for the new bassist. Kennedy’s “Madrugada” gives the drummer an opportunity to do some interesting rhythmic accents.
All in all, A Rise in the Road is accessible jazz played with smooth expertise. The four of them may not have been playing together for 32 years, but, from the way they play on this album, if you didn’t know, you couldn’t tell.