How about at the beginning, when they were the backup 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 lineup 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.