The Yellowjackets are a jazz anomaly. They get pigeonholed as smooth jazz because of their sound, but their music is as brilliant and complex as anything Wayne Shorter wrote. I wrote an article about their visit to Berklee in April, and every musician I spoke with agreed: The Yellowjackets prove that through hard work, anyone can achieve a level of excellence indistinguishable from genius.
When they released Altered State in March, DownBeat panned it with four critical reviews. Here are a few excerpts:
There's a steady, low-key buzz in the air but not much sting on this rather bland set of home-cooked pieces. The band coasts through a mix of carefully crafted lines and time signatures with their usual poise but with little discernible inspiration, leaving a trail of easy-listening light jazz behind. [John McDonough]Bob Mintzer wrote a letter in reply, calling their characterization of Altered State "inaccurate, unjust, and an overly dour surmise of the music of a band that has been working on a sound and concept for over 25 years." He continued:
While this CD is not as vacuous as past Yellowjackets records, in part because of a less pumped-up mix, it doesn't honestly have that much to recommend. The most bland of several paths that Miles Davis' electric music could have taken, it's tight, slick and free of anything original to say. [John Corbett]
Though the Yellowjackets certainly is a sophisticated band -- particularly since reedman Bob Mintzer joined -- the foursome never seems to let go of its music and let the world just feel it... [They] also assume my attention span is short. Tracks last four to six minutes; ideas and solos are discrete, crisp and to the point. That could be a plus, but in this case it's like getting a taste, but never a real meal. [Paul de Barros]
It's inane and lazy to dismiss this music based on a perceived slickness or on length of tunes and solos. If one were to listen inside the music a bit instead of judging the book by its cover, they might notice an unusual and original compositional style, strong ensemble playing, an identifiable sound and four musicians dedicated to moving the music forward in an honest and heartfelt way.That's a fair characterization of the Yellowjackets. Their compositions are truly stunning, incredibly complicated schematics that swing and groove as if they were 6/8 riffs out of James Brown's songbook. All four players are absolute pros with unique voices and an uncanny ability to listen to each other. I'm a fan, and yet I'm forced to agree with de Barros: Their potential exceeds their execution.
I'm sympathetic to Mintzer's argument. When I first heard Bill Frisell's solo album, I was disappointed he had used loops and overdubbing -- until I realized that was like being annoyed with Michelangelo for painting the Sistine Chapel because I liked the Pieta. But the Yellowjackets' legacy, I think, is likely to stagnate as composers of intricate music that was left to others to mine; and that would be a waste. I've heard each member play outside the band, and they're all first-rate improvisors who are fully capable of cutting loose. There's a lot to be explored within their music. They should be the ones to do it.