Time Squared by Yellowjackets – reviewed by Chris Mann

The story began in 1977, when guitarist Robben Ford assembled a top-flight group of session players to record his album The Inside Story. The trio included keyboardist Russell Ferrante, bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Ricky Lawson. 

These three players gelled well and after demos featuring Robben Ford were accepted by Warner Brothers, the Yellowjackets as a unit began to carve out an impressive career.  Even their debut album “Yellowjackets” was well accepted on jazz radio. 

Robben Ford’s involvement with the band slowly diminished and in 1984, sax man Marc Russo became the band’s new lead voice. Ricky Lawson vacated the drum stool with the release of Four Corners.  He was replaced by the versatile William Kennedy and this new unit explored more world beats and adventurous soundscapes, to great acclaim. 

By the time of the “Greenhouse” album, Marc Russo had left and was replaced temporarily – and later on a more permanent basis – by the multi-talented Bob Mintzer.  Bob is still there for the Yellowjackets’ 16th album (including live sets but excluding collections) and after two more changes of drummer, Marcus Baylor now makes up the foursome – the square. 

Go-Go is a nod to the Washington DC music scene.  Baylor on drums and the rock-solid Jimmy Haslip lay down a groove that stays tough throughout.  The EWI and piano lines intertwine gorgeously on what becomes a really infectious tune.  Russell Ferrante’s piano work is dazzling on Monk’s Habit, as you’d expect on a tribute to Thelonius Monk.  This is straight-ahead jazz – with flying cymbal-work, bass and piano. 

Yellowjackets’ effortless ability to lay down a groove – even if you know it’s going to fly off in different directions – has always amazed me.  On Smithtown, the atmospheric breakdowns just serve to make the groove all the sweeter when it hits again.  Bob Mintzer’s bass clarinet has done it for me ever since I first heard his sublime “Navajo” about 10 years ago.  Marcus Baylor’s debut composition Healing Waters is a lyrical and expressive song.  It features a playful vocal by his wife Jean and the mellow tenor of Mr. Mintzer.  The song has its dark moments too… 

The title track shows the Yellowjackets throwing down an urgent groove with nice staccato drumming, an insistent bass and layers of keyboard action.  Jimmy Haslip’s dedication to his daughter Gabriela Rose is haunting and very relaxed.  The contrast with the previous track highlights the band’s versatility.  If you were waiting for a bass solo here it is. 

If you like offbeat time signatures and complex playing that doesn’t take itself too seriously, you’re sure to like Sea Folk.  It’s littered with counterpoint and little moments of discord.  I enjoyed the live feel of this track – this band really sounds ‘together’.  Hey, and another bass solo!!  Maybe 5/4 is a more accessible time signature.  Having previously bought “Four Corners” and “The Spin”, V is just what I expected to hear on a Yellowjackets CD.  It’s best to close your eyes and drift away.  The confidence that pours out of Mintzer’s tenor is addictive, even for someone who doesn’t think of themselves as a “fusion” fan. 

Claire at 18 is the story of a girl’s transition to womanhood.  It’s as beautiful and poignant as you’d expect.  The richest of piano textures and that sensuous tenor combine with the tenderest of latin rhythms to draw you in.  Lovely.  Bob Mintzer’s wistful Village Gait is an offbeat song with its share of groove and is a look over the shoulder at the unfathomable devastation wrought upon New York in September 2001.  To me it speaks of a city that picked itself up and dusted itself off despite its suffering. 

Far more mournful is My First Best Friend.  This is all about loss and the minor piano chords, dark tones on soprano sax and general intensity make this a powerful closer. 

Yellowjackets’ music is not smooth jazz and it’s not an easy ride always.  Some of it is deceptively simple but there’s always a twist and the playing can become very complex very suddenly.  Separate the strands though, and you’ll hear performances that individually are some of the finest anywhere and that together are what have made Yellowjackets a force in the jazz world for over 20 years. 

Did you always say “one day I must buy a Yellowjackets album”?  Well, make it this one.



Heads Up International – cat no. HUCD 3075 – Produced by Yellowjackets