Twenty-five years ago in 1981, as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis attempted to return jazz music to its pure and glorious beginnings, the West Coast-based fusion band the Yellowjackets also arrived on the scene, but with different intentions. The Yellowjackets embraced important pieces of Marsalis’ dogma in those early days: emotional content, originality, improvisation (Leonard Feather’s “sound of surprise”) and the magic of cooperation in a group setting. But the aesthetic stagnancy and rejection of modernity that also defined Marsalis’ approach would never be part of the Yellowjackets; instead, the band was often compared to the great jazz troupe the Crusaders. So even as the popularity of fusion waned and the “young lions” movement emerged in the 1980s, the group stuck to its eclectic roots and made its mark.
In recognition of over two decades together, the Yellowjackets have presented a creative recording aptly titled Twenty Five. However, Twenty Five is a retrospective done in a very different way. This is not a selection of pre-recorded tunes with liner notes rehashing old road stories; Twenty Five is two live performances of the group during their winter 2005 European tour. Also included is a DVD featuring bonus tracks, interviews and footage of the band in action. The songs selected for Twenty Five are some of the group’s finest and best-known recordings over the years, but the work sounds even more impressive in a live setting, unrestricted by production concerns. “Geraldine,” from the 1989 album The Spin, is a rousing ballad that is one of the album’s best moments. Saxophonist Bob Mintzer, who was not with the group when the song was originally recorded, handles it very well here, precisely because his approach is slower and more touching. Back in 2002, shortly after Mintzer joined the group, his sound was aptly described by The Washington Post as possessing a “robust soulfulness;” this is seen on “Geraldine” in a very genuine way.
“My Old School,” another of the group’s better-known tunes, is probably most typical of the work on Twenty Five. It starts slow and moody, but rises above the somber tones to a series of call and response patterns that consistently suggest optimism. The most important statement here is the opening tune, “Revelation.” Though it lacks the standard slow beginning, it prevails in stating its theme emphatically. Russell Ferrante, the original keyboardist for the band, leads the way triumphantly, sending the message that the Yellowjackets believe in their music, have persevered and are proud of the past 25 years.