The Yellowjackets – The Best of the Yellowjackets

BumpThe Best of the Yellowjackets
The Yellowjackets
(Warner – 2000)
by Mark Ruffin

When GRP Records released their Yellowjackets compilation culled from the six albums the group did for them, it would have been a travesty to call it The Best of the Yellowjackets, Without a doubt, the best work that the quartet did was from their two tours of duty with that giant subsidiary of American Online known as Warner Brothers.

The Yellowjackets began life in the late 70’s as the back-up band for guitarist Robben Ford. Their first album, a 1981 self-titled effort, featured Ford, and was a breath of fresh air for the contemporary jazz movement. The fusion scene was stalling and the smooth jazz onslaught was still in the womb, but, by this time Spyro-Gyra was established, Richard Elliot was touring with Kittyhawk, and Kenny G had replaced Dennis Springer in the Jeff Lorber Fusion. Not counting the Crusaders, there weren’t any other self-contained contemporary jazz group exciting the American public.

With their debut release, the ‘Jackets upped the ante on the eroding creativity within electric jazz. The sound was tight, bright and funky. Russell Ferrante’s keyboard sound was totally original and contained funky elements of the black church. Jimmy Haslip became the first electric bassist to fuse the technical fire of Jaco Pastorius with the crisp funk of Verdine White, and they had one of the funkiest drummer in California, at the time, in Ricky Lawson.

Half of this 12-song retrospective comes from the first three albums that this group put together, the first two with Ford, and the third with San Francisco saxophonist Marc Russo. While Matt Pierson, the compilation’s producer, was right on with “Daddy’s Gonna Miss You,” and “Homecoming,” as the tracks to represent the third album, “Samurai Samba,” some would doubt his picks from the first album and the follow-up, the classic “Mirage A Trois.” The problem is that those two records are so good, especially the latter, that Pierson could have pulled titles out of the hat and still came up a winner, or loser, depending on the view.

The group switched to MCA before GRP was purchased, and released what many feel is the best album of the group’s pop-jazz, Shades, which included the Donald Fagen penned title track. The only drawback of this compilation is that none of the tracks from “Shades” are included here.

1986, the year “Shades” was released, was a watershed year for both contemporary jazz and the Yellowjackets. What was fusion was becoming smooth and the Yellowjackets got bored with it. The group was pushed over the bring when Lawson was gloved by Michael Jackson, and Russo soon left too.

That’s when first drummer Will Kennedy, and then saxophonist Bobby Mintzer, joined the group, and for many, that was the beginning of the Yellowjackets sound as we know it today.

Gone was any pop pretentiousness. But, unfortunately for GRP, it took the group a few albums to work out all the kinks. They still made good records, but all of them, including my faves, “Greenhouse” and “Live Wires,” were uneven works. Counting “Shades,” they made six albums for GRP, but the re-tooling didn’t really gel until the group once again found themselves back at Warner Brothers.

It really clicked the first time out with the 1995 “Dreamland,” album. It was head and shoulder, more cohesive and better than any of the GRP sides. And again, Pierson, hit it right on the head with the selections he picked, “The Chosen,” and “Summer Song,” the latter of which features Bobby McFerrin. The tracks from “Blue Hats” and “Club Nocturne,” are also on the a-list, including the recent collaboration that the group did with vocalist Kurt Elling.