The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) directed by Tommy Smith with special guest Bob Mintzer: The Music of Yellowjackets at the Caird Hall, Dundee 27.9.14
September 28, 2014
Is there such a thing as feelgood jazz? Isn’t jazz an earnest kind of music where everyone sits around deep in reverential thought while musicians arm-wrestle with their own psyche. If it is, then no one’s told the SNJO or Bob Mintzer. Last night they served up a hot dish of highly palatable modern music that was certainly jazz and absolutely made you feel good.
Tommy Smith in the pre-concert talk with Bob Mintzer described the music of Yellowjackets as “optimistic” and it’s a good word to use when describing one of the best-loved and most enduring quartets in world jazz. Bob Mintzer is the Yellowjackets saxophonist with more than thirty years service under his belt, and he remains brightly positive about making music that all too often has to make a case for itself. Mintzer is however at a considerable advantage for his ideas about melody happily square with the common man’s idea of a really good tune.
The first three numbers of the show, all Mintzer melodies, are the kind that embed themselves in the musical part of your brain that usually remains dormant until you find yourself humming them in the car. When The Lady Dances is typically infectious, although it swings rather than sways in this big band arrangement. Aha! is probably the best theme music ever composed for an imaginary spy movie that inexplicably never got made. Mintzer is undoubtedly a populist at heart and his March Majestic is a loose-limbed perambulation through the historic quarter of New Orleans.
Mintzer’s tunes and arrangements are deftly scripted narratives with a distinct story arc, but a lot of the music begins in earnest when the soloists step up to improvise against a richly textured orchestral backdrop. Those first three numbers intriguingly featured trombone solos that were quite different in character and as individual as the player’s respective personalities. It’s also enormous fun to watch Mintzer direct the band. He’s a big band leader in his own right, and his gestures are a bit like those of an unflappable football coach who knows exactly what works and when to turn it up. As a soloist on tenor sax he’s very much the voice of experience and his undoubted dexterity and speed is at every point in touch with the soulful feel that has come to inform much of Yellowjackets finest moments. There’s a break in the momentum as pianist Steve Hamilton weaves a wonderful intro into Everything Happens To Me. It’s sweet tune and Calum Gourlay brings a very soft touch to his bass solo in an arrangement that gives him a chance to show great delicacy and legerdemain.
The SNJO rarely closes a first set with anything less than scorching finish. Mintzer’s Runferyerlife, a Yellowjackets crowd-pleaser, was a suitably frantic, fantastic, frenetic, fast n furious barrage of notes blasted into the air. Tommy Smith on tenor was on blistering form, adopting a brusque style that contrasted interestingly with Mintzer’s deceptively easy manner. Tom McNiven on trumpet pushed notes to the edge of human hearing, and no doubt there were dogs going crazy four blocks away. Alyn Cosker on drums seemed to be having a quiet night until he made up up for lost time with a thunderous solo that made the knees tremble and the eyes water.
In the second half Freedomland came with layered emancipation as Tom Walsh broke out on trumpet and saxophonist Martin Kershaw, enjoying a bit of extra elbow-room on the arrangement, found himself free and clear.
Somehow, among all these different voices Mintzer emerges as a something of a leveller with the kind of gentle authority that holds the attention. On a recent tune, Civil War, Mintzer’s undoubted craft and the orchestra’s appreciative understanding shone through. Aside from the funk-fortified Why Is It? and Like Elvin (marked by a playful time signature and super piano and bass solos) it’s seductive melody that remains the king of the hill in the world of Yellowjackets.
Evensong is one of Russell Ferrante’s most bliss-inducing songs and it’s tailor made for the happy couples in the audience who are holding hands and getting to know one another on that third or fourth date. It epitomised Tommy Smith’s earlier observations about the sanguine nature of Yellowjackets music, and the SNJO’s resident soul man Konrad Wiesniwski, with a scintillating tenor solo, was clearly in his element. Moreover, with Steve Hamilton contributing some free running piano there was some soul-stirring vernacular jazz and some Ramsey Lewis chords thrown in for good measure.
The double-quick encore of Go-Go coursed fast and loose and then it was time we all went-went out into an unseasonably warm September night. It was jazz, and by all accounts, it made you feel good.
Michael S. Clark
28 September 2014