Yellowjackets – Peace ‘Round

Peace ‘Round
a True Celebration of Christmas
(Heads Up – 2004)
by D. Kevin McNeir

This year will mark the first holiday season that my “significant other” and I will be apart but it won’t have to be a “blue Christmas” thanks to the new CD by Yellowjackets entitled Peace ‘Round.

Fans of this extraordinary contemporary jazz foursome have been asking keyboardist and group founding member Russell Ferrante when the band would get around to recording a holiday compilation of their own. Now after almost 30 years in the business, Yellowjackets has done just that. Ferrante remarks that the CD was recorded because “We felt that this was the right moment for a Christmas record. The band has been very busy this year and the chemistry has been particularly strong.”

Chemistry is indeed a fitting word when describing Yellowjackets. Although their lineup has changed over the years—particularly with several different drummers, they have always managed to maintain a wonderful sound, with studio veterans Bob Mintzer on the saxophone, Jimmy Haslip on bass and most recently, Marcus Baylor on drums.

But it’s clearly Ferrante who is the glue that holds this group together and the catalyst that gives them their spark. Just listening to Peace ‘Round evokes memories of crackling fireplaces, presents surrounding the Christmas tree, eggnog and kisses under the mistletoe. Most of the songs are recorded live with just the quartet—only two utilize the new technology of overdubbing.

With the exception of the song from which the title is drawn, “Peace ‘Round,” all of the selections are familiar holiday classics, with a few twists thrown in to make the arrangements more conducive for a jazz quartet. The title song is based on an old English canon and according to Ferrante, is a metaphor for the reason for Christmas—to remind us that with Christ there is peace and hope. You will love Yellowjackets’ version of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Deck the Halls” as both are the kinds of arrangements that will make you want to snap your fingers and nod your head in time with the syncopated beat. Each arrangement has the flavor of a calypso tune and may make you run out and spend a few days in the tropics—if you haven’t spent all of your cash on gifts for others.

Then there’s the slow, hypnotic “Silent Night” which really cashes in on the wonderful skills of the group’s sax player. As the piece modulates, the keyboardist takes over while more subtle notes are supplied by the bassist. From this writer’s perspective, “Silent Night” has rarely been played with such emotion.

If you’re looking for a tear jerker, just listen to the keyboardist serenade his listeners in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with his rich, interpretive ascending and descending chords that open the piece, followed by saxophonist Mintzer playing at the top of his form. This one you don’t want to listen to alone—unless you have a lot of tissue ready.

My favorite on the CD is “The First Noel,” featuring a stirring vocal performance by Jean Baylor—a regular vocalist for Yellowjackets. Of all of the songs recorded, this tune is the one that clearly transmits the message of why we even recognize Christmas at all. As the song moves into the second and third verses, Baylor takes off in a performance that is more a prayer than a performance. And there’s a hot sax interlude for the diehard jazz aficionado.

Peace ‘Round is sure to become a holiday jazz classic. Make sure you add it to your collection. And who knows? Maybe next year I’ll have someone to snuggle with under the mistletoe.