Over twenty years after its founding and three years after signing with Heads Up International, Yellowjackets has released its first Christmas album, combining the characteristics of its unmistakable sound with the familiarity of holiday music. Even though Yellowjackets has evolved throughout its existence as a continual, but gradual, work in progress, even with the addition of a horn player in 1990 the versatile and supremely talented Bob Mintzer each stage of the band’s growth seems like a natural change as its highly identifiable style remains intact.
Now that that style has gelled and the musicians are playing with authority and ease, their musical chemistry stronger than ever, the Yellowjackets fellows have settled into the spirit of the holidays with their determined mission of making music that inspires peace and understanding.
Symbolically, the title track, "Peace Round," actually is
a round, a canon, that represents the Yellowjackets’ desire for the geometrical growth of well-wishing from a single voice, as does "Peace Round" in musically suggestive fashion. Mintzer begins the old English traditional song as a single phrase which the pianist Russell Ferrante and bassist Jimmy Haslip repeat in successive segments for elaboration of the melody and its blossoming growth into revealed richness.
On the other tracks, the Yellowjackets imprint their own musical personality on the Christmas standards, like "Little Drummer Boy," rooted by Haslip’s distinctive booming bass and drummer Marcus Baylor’s hint of New Orleans street beat as the group adds a hint of gospel and a lot of groove. On "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," Ferrante changes to acoustic piano as the quartet plays a more traditional arrangement, Ferrante’s own, than that of some of the other tracks, abandoning harmonic alteration for the coziness of familiarity as Mintzer lays out the melody declaratively without excessive improvisation on tenor sax.
On "The First Noel," the Yellowjackets feature soprano Jean Baylor singing the words with an appealing sense of wonder and a style bordering on R&B on the only track of Peace Round
that includes lyrics. The final track, "In A Silent Night," transforms the Christmas familiar carol into a tribute to the influence of Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul as the Yellowjackets recall the early years of the band when fusion recordings were still popular, though the Yellowjackets are still active in pursuing their own combination of R&B, jazz, pop, blues, electronics, world music and Afro-Cuban percussiveness. Using an electronic pulsation of a single pitch behind Mintzer’s slow and tentative playing of "Silent Night," the Yellowjackets remind the listener of their ability to transform the familiar into mysterious and wondrous territory, as ironic in its contrasts as that of the CD package’s cover photograph: a plastic Santa Claus yard decoration in the middle of a desert.
Having tackled its first Christmas album, Yellowjackets is moving on, as the group always does, to a new project, a March release of no doubt original and reassuring music once again on Heads Up International.