Fusion or smooth jazz? That’s always been the question regarding Yellowjackets, but at least the nearly 30-year-old group’s new DVD, New Morning: The Paris Concert (Heads Up), gives clues as to why. Original keyboardist Russell Ferrante’s use of synthesizers is what most makes the quartet’s recordings smooth; original bassist Jimmy Haslip is its most fusion-approved player. Add saxophonist and big-band specialist Bob Mintzer (with the group since 1990) and gospel-weaned drummer Marcus Baylor (since 2000), and it’s impressive to watch the four players blend into a cohesive whole.
And a more muscular whole, which is usually the case with Yellowjackets live, where the band strips the sheen away from its overproduced studio recordings. Much of the credit here goes to Ferrante, who sets the tone by playing more piano than synth on the opening “Aha” and subsequent “Capetown,” which features a shell game of a time signature. Baylor goes from navigating that maze to playing the intro solo on an early highlight, Mintzer’s “Bop Boy.” First released on his 1998 solo album Quality Time, the track segues into a Mintzer-Baylor duet before Ferrante takes a bopping solo.
Even when Ferrante and Mintzer both go electric-the saxophonist switches from tenor to EWI on “Cross Current”-the keyboardist returns to piano to play one of his best solos on the disc. Other highlights include the Ferrante-Haslip ballad “Dewey,” dedicated to Miles Davis, and the burning closer, “Evening News.” From the 1998 album Club Nocturne, the track is one of the few that put Haslip, arguably the band’s resident virtuoso, in the spotlight. Haslip’s chopsy role has been an ongoing theme throughout the group’s history, and the humble, supportive bassist gets the last word, literally, by hosting the bonus tune, “Soundcheck Sketches.”