The material, for the most part, is familiar. But the arrangements, four by saxophonist Bob Mintzer, two by keyboardist Russell Ferrante, one by bassist Jimmy Haslip, and one by drummer Marcus Baylor, his wife Jean, and Ferrante, reharmonize the material in a way that, while retaining the melodic essence of the tunes, open them up for greater improvisational possibilities. And it is this opening up of the material that makes it more than just something to listen to at the holidays. This is not just a great Christmas record; this is a great Yellowjackets record, period.
Following up their excellent release, Time Squared, Peace Round continues to refute the reputation that has sometimes plagued the Yellowjackets as a smooth jazz group. With a stronger emphasis on an acoustic sound, and with inventive arrangements that are lyrical yet deceptively challenging, the Yellowjackets are on a roll. In fact, since going the independent route with 2002’s Mint Jam, it has become clear that the group operates with far more integrity and commitment when left completely to their own devices.
The title song, based on an old English cannon, is one of two surprises on the record. A round which, as Ferrante puts it "begins with the statement of a theme by a single voice. As the theme is passed from one voice to the next, what began as a solitary voice, grows into a rich chorus", weaves a rich tapestry, driven lightly by Baylor’s outstanding cymbal work.
The other surprise is the final track, "In a Silent Night", where the group blends the traditional tune "Silent Night" with the ambience and backdrop of the Joe Zawinul classic, "In a Silent Way", paying homage to Miles Davis.
One of the many standout tracks is "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" which, with its modal 6/8 feel paying tribute to John Coltrane’s classic quartet of the 1960s, manages to make the song swing in a way that is completely legitimate, without the slightest bit of shtick. Rather than thinking of this as just a Christmas record, think of it more as a recording of great Christmas songs; there is a difference.
Peace Round: A Christmas Celebration is available now, only through the Yellowjackets website, www.yellowjackets.com , and $1 from each sale is donated the Union Station Foundation, which services the homeless in the Pasadena, California area. Don’t wait until Christmas to buy this record; and resist the urge to put it in the same place as the rest of your Christmas disks when the season is over. This is a record that stands on its own as a fine recording of familiar tunes, and should be played all year round.