Yellowjackets started out as the backing band on a solo project for Robben Ford, the guitarist who in turn added spice to the band’s first two releases, still two of their best. Ford also made a guest appearance on the group’s last CD with a guitarist, 1993’s strong Run For Your Life, so there’s no question what comparisons the quartet is trying to draw by recording Lifecycle with guest guitarist and labelmate Mike Stern.
But while band and guitarist have reputations for stirring live performances, each also has up-and-down recording catalogs, largely underachieved through overproduction. Outside of the efforts with Ford, Yellowjackets has a couple gems in a 27-year run, and Stern’s 22-year catalog is highlighted by Odds Or Evens (1991) and These Times (2004). On Lifecycle, the guitarist adds what amounts to a mild sting to Yellowjackets’ potency.
The 10-song disc’s strongest material is oddly back-loaded in the seventh and eighth slots. Bob Mintzer’s “I Wonder” features several different creative parts by the multi-reed player, plus stirring solos by Stern and bassist Jimmy Haslip, an original member and the band’s underutilized MVP. “3 Circles” is a rare 7/8-timed funk tune composed by the core quartet (Mintzer, Haslip, drummer Marcus Baylor and original keyboardist Russell Ferrante).
That combined songwriting credit hints at spontaneity and improvisation, qualities missing from even the strongest of the individually composed pieces like Stern’s “Double Nickel” and Mintzer’s “Yahoo.” This quintet will add venom to these pieces during a fall tour, but Lifecycle largely misses the point of what got them together in the first place—a live pairing at the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival. Yellowjackets’ most fiery playing in the 21st century remains on 2001’s Mint Jam; Stern’s on 2002’s all-star 4 Generations of Miles. Both were live albums.