Review: Yellowjackets featuring Mike Stern – Lifecycle

The Yellowjackets – where do I start? How about at the beginning, when they were the back-up band for Robben Ford? Much has been written and chronicled about this early chapter of their history, especially in light of their 2006 anniversary release, Twenty-Five. I bring all this up because of the inevitable comparison that will be made between the current Yellowjackets line-up on Lifecycle and the original group with guitarist Ford – all because of the prescience of the telecaster-wielding Mike Stern. Let me start by saying that I think this current band of Haslip, Ferrante, Mintzer and Baylor along with guest Stern are by far the strongest iteration of this storied group. Ford, Russo, Lawson, Kennedy, and Erskine all contributed mightily when they were in the band but, somewhere in the late eighties, Ferrante and Haslip started to take the band, both sonically and compositionally, in a different direction. This culminated with Mintzer joining the Jackets for both Greenhouse and his own One Music in 1991 and 1992 respectively. Which leads us to Lifecycle, and the inclusion of Stern, who first joined the Yellowjackets on stage in Montreal last year. Whereas Ford has always had that blues sound, Stern’s playing is decidedly more horn-like in both his phrasing and attack which makes him the perfect foil for Mintzer. In fact, I feel that Stern could have felt right at home on any of the last four or five Jackets’ releases – his sound and compositional style are so incredibly suited to this band. I remember a night in 1990 when I was listening to the local late night jazz radio broadcast and I heard what I thought was the Yellowjackets. It turned out to be a tune from the Mike Stern-Bob Berg band, something from one or the other’s recordings, which at the time were virtually the same personnel. My point: this collaboration has been a long time coming and this version of the Yellowjackets has never sounded better or stronger. As a fan, the courage that the Yellowjackets display on Lifecycle to keep evolving the band is certainly a comfort for future endeavors.

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Review: Neil Larsen – Orbit

Neil Larsen is definitely not a household name when it comes to contemporary jazz unless you’re hardcore, know your history, and have been listening to the music long before the “Wave” signified something other than what you surfed on. An extraordinary keyboardist, who’s spent a great deal of his career making other musicians sound better, this is only Larsen’s fifth release under his own name. In 1978 and 1979 he released Jungle Fever and High Gear for the A&M-Horizon label. He was not to be heard from, as a solo artist again until 1987 and 1989 when, for MCA, he released Through Any Window and Smooth Talk. For those of you old enough to remember, at one time, CBS Sports used Larsen’s “Windsong” from Jungle Fever as a theme song. One constant, over all these years, has been Larsen’s stellar organ playing, which is his predominant voice on all five of his solo recordings and, once again, featured on Orbit. Orbit is a mix of some new and some old. Neil revisits some earlier compositions, such as “Jungle Fever,” “Sudden Samba,” and “Red Desert,” albeit with new, sparser arrangements and instrumentation. Helping out on this recording are a number of old friends, Robben Ford, Jimmy Haslip, Gary Meek, Tom Brechtlein, and Lee Thornburg. This is one of the first releases from a new label started by recording and mastering legend, Bernie Grundman, the sound is excellent; I hope Grundman finds enough success to be able to get Larsen back in the studio for a follow up recording.

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Review: MSM Schmidt – Transit

The next time someone asks me to define contemporary jazz, I have the answer: Transit from MSM Schmidt. The project is an ideal fusion of jazz and rock. It has excellent compositions that allow its stellar cast of musicians to let loose and improvise. It’s a plugged-in, fired-up affair that will reinvigorate a sagging spirit.

When I first heard the opening track, “Journey To Fukuoka,” I immediately thought of the Dave Weckl Band. It has the energy and sound of the DWB and features former DWB saxman Brandon Fields. Like every track here, this one has a who’s who of contemporary jazz lineup – Jimmy Haslip on bass, Joel Rosenblatt on drums, Judd Miller on EVI, Mitchell Forman on piano, Mike Miller on guitar, with Kai Thomsen and MSM Schmidt throwing in synth parts. Rosenblatt is joined by Ric Fierabracci on bass for the next track, the sentimental “Little Joe.” Walt Fowler is spotlighted on trumpet with a nice piano solo by David Garfield. Fields is impressive on soprano sax on the gentle, more acoustic “Country X.” Wolfgang Haffner and Dave Carpenter provide the rhythm and Mike Miller switches from electric guitar to acoustic. You can’t help but notice Forman on piano and not just because of his solo. He adds the right touches at the right places. “Song For Michel” is a beautiful dedication to Michel Colombier that features memorable solos by Rick Braun, Fields, and Forman. Two more A-list contributors show up on this track – Will Lee and Vinnie Colaiuta.

The tempo is kicked up on “Rizma.” Rosenblatt hasn’t really been restrained on this recording and this may be the track where he shows what he’s got the most. Mike Miller rocks the electric guitar solo then again switches to acoustic for another beautiful performance on the sweet “Caroline.” MSM Schmidt adds a nice synth backdrop and Ernie Watts adds a tender sax solo. Watts is up front again on the appropriately titled “Slow Moves,” a downtempo piece that still moves because of the active bass of Ernest Tibbs and drums of Wolfgang Haffner. It sounds like the next composition, “Xpress,” might have a Joe Zawinul influence. An entire new cast is assembled on this track – Scott Kinsey on keyboards, Scott Henderson on guitar, Steve Tavaglione on sax, Jimmy Earl on bass, Kirk Covington on drums, and Brad Dutz on percussion. MSM still delivers the synths (it’s his recording, after all). There’s also world music flavor on the following track, “Sphere.” Kai Thomsen lays out a keyboard soundscape that Haslip, Judd Miller, Watts, Forman, and Rosenblatt play effectively on.

There is unmistakable energy on Transit, from a ballad to especially this last track. “Falling Down” is a piece that starts with some cool electric piano and synths, then adds syncopated horn parts, bass, piano, trumpet, and sax solos, and later evolves into an all-out jam. Haffner, Forman, Tibbs, and Mike Miller are laying it all out toward the end.

I didn’t mention every solo by every musician. There are lots of them and they are all good. Mitchell Forman is featured on five tracks and I just ran out of ways to say “Forman delivers yet another memorable solo.” Mike Miller impressed me on every track he was on. Musicians who aren’t soloing are also giving their all. There are no background parts. Every bassist and drummer, keyboardist – you can hear everyone is into this music. Reading through the project history, it seems this recording was put together piece by piece but, man, it often sounds like these guys were having fun together live in the studio.

It helps that the music is written to allow the guys to do their thing. MSM Schmidt wrote all of the music except for “Xpress.” Not bad for a guy who describes himself as “an amateur musician who in a fit of megalomania scraped the money together” to put the project together!

If I were giving grades for recordings, I’d have no choice but to give Transit by MSM Schmidt an A. It excels on every level – playing, compositions, production – you name it. It’s an energetic recording that belongs in the library of every contemporary jazz fan.

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Review: Jaco Pastorius Big Band – Word of Mouth Revisited

A scenario I’d like to see at the 2004 Grammy Awards ceremony: The Grammy returns to honoring jazz during its primetime special. Some of modern jazz’s best known bassists are playing a tribute to Jaco Pastorius. After thunderous applause, the award for Best Large Ensemble Album is announced. The winner: The Jaco Pastorius Big Band – Word of Mouth Revisited.

Word of Mouth Revisited covers Jaco’s compositions from his early days with conductor/arranger Peter Graves’ orchestra to his work with Weather Report and Word of Mouth. There’s an unreleased bass recording of Jaco himself on one of his favorite Herbie Hancock compositions “Wiggle Waggle.” It was recorded in the late 70s and the current Jaco Big Band plays the rest of the parts. This fourteen-piece big band is tight. I can’t say enough about the crispness of their sound. It’s easily the best big band I’ve heard in some time. The thirteen arrangements – by Graves (who hired Jaco in 1971 for his orchestra), Larry Warrilow (Jaco?s longtime friend and collaborator), and Jaco are excellent.

Then there is the who’s who of bass players: Marcus Miller, Christian McBride, Jimmy Haslip, Victor Wooten, Victor Bailey, Gerald Veasley, Richard Bona, and Jaco’s nephew, David Pastorius all contribute to this recording. It goes without saying that the rhythm on this CD is unbelievable. The bassists obviously seem inspired and actually seem to exceed their already formidable skills. Drummer Mark Griffith deserves special recognition for his excellent work on driving the tempo. Griffith is a standout on a CD where every single musician is worthy of note.

Whether you know everything Jaco or not, Word of Mouth Revisited is a release any modern jazz fan will want in his or her collection. It’s this year’s most welcome surprise.