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Yellowjackets & Mike Stern

Proctors Theatre
Schenectady, NY
January 31, 2009
by J Hunter
Much to their credit, Proctors has been booking jazz acts that aren’t necessarily for everybody: Chick Corea & Bela Fleck’s acoustic show was an absolute wonder, but if you weren’t a hardcore fan of these guys, you definitely had to be in the mood for what they were laying down; and while the Monterey Jazz All-Stars kept it pretty trad, the excerpts from Terence Blanchard’s wrenching epic Requiem for Katrina drove that audience over some pretty rough road. Some of Saturday night’s audience might have thought the Yellowjackets/Mike Stern show would be less eventful because of the group’s reported “Smooth Jazz background.” Look, the Yellowjackets and Spyro Gyra made it big about the same time, but saying they’re on the same creative path is like saying U2 and The Knack are the same band!
Those expecting something akin to Chris Botti got their wake-up call right after original ’jacket Russell Ferrante led the quintet onstage and played an in-the-clear intro to “Statue of Liberty.” Stern started out the song on Stage Left, but as soon as the groove was established, the former Miles Davis sideman moved to center stage and started interacting with tenorman Bob Mintzer. The melody bubbled and sizzled, but it wasn’t out to bust heads – something Smooth Jazzers like Jeff Lorber and Boney James tend to do in concert when they want to prove they’re just as “hardcore” as those boring old “traditional” jazz acts.
While Mintzer’s solos show a brilliant economy, that economy is offset by a broad, fuzzy sound usually equated with Dexter Gordon. Combine these two attributes and you get the delicious bebopping moment on “Statue” that had Mintzer snarling on the high end while Stern riffed hard over the groove. When Mintzer dropped off and Stern stepped up, those who remember him from his days with Miles automatically braced for a relentless sonic onslaught. They needn’t have bothered. Stern has left behind the two things that hamstrung him back in the day: His allegiance to the Lowell George Diet (i.e. heroin and Twinkies), and his penchant for making every solo sound like one of Tony Iommi’s outtakes. Stern’s still one of the fastest guns in the West, but there’s a sense of melody and nuance that was nowhere to be found on Daviis comeback albums like The Man with The Horn and We Want Miles!
Of course, all this fell on (a few) deaf ears, and after 25 minutes of “Statue” and some nastier grove courtesy of “Aha”, some season subscribers decided “I can check this show off my list” and headed for the exits. That didn’t mean all the dissatisfied customers had left the building, though. There were complaints that Stern took way too much solo time from Mintzer, and that Ferrante was almost entirely out of the loop. It’s true that Stern did spend an excessive time at the edge of the stage doing the Rock Star Pose while Mintzer either stood at Parade Rest or stepped off the stage; the explanation I heard was that Stern hadn’t played with the ’jackets in a month, so they were concentrating on numbers Stern was familiar with. And while Ferrante did seem to be playing more of a support role, the solos he did offer up were beautifully lyrical, and made a good contrast to whatever mayhem Stern and/or Mintzer had wrought before.
Mintzer might not have gotten equal face time in the first set, but he more than made up for it in the second half with an Electronic Wind Instrument solo that really showed what the instrument could do. He and Stern had a great rapport going from the start, and they seemed to feed off each other throughout the evening. Mintzer also played the affable host, talking about how Lifecycle (Heads Up, 2008) – their much-heralded collaboration with Stern – is up for a Grammy, and he took time to inform us that a Grammy “weighs about 95 pounds. That’s so nobody steals it!”
While anything but Old School jazz may befuddle some of Proctors’ prime demographic, the venue deserves big love for booking acts that challenge sensibilities and perceptions. Steps Ahead and the Stanley Clarke/George Duke Project have passed this way on the jazz version of “the Oldies Reunion Tour”, and the results were uniformly excruciating. However, the Yellowjackets are far from done with making new music, and their partnership with Mike Stern made Proctors shake, even if some of the tremors bounced off a few retreating backs.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.