It’s always a treat when an established ‘jazz’ band makes its artistic and/or commercial breakthrough after years of service. Weather Report of course did it with Heavy Weather, and Yellowjackets did something similar with their 1991 release Greenhouse.
Greenhouse was their eighth studio album. After several lineup changes – though always sticking to core unit of Russell Ferrante on keyboards and Jimmy Haslip on bass – it all seemed to fall into place here.
The departure of Marc Russo on sax led to the inspired choice of Bob Mintzer as replacement (though he was credited here as a ‘guest’). Mintzer had of course been one of the key saxists on the New York scene for over a decade, perhaps most famous for his work with Jaco Pastorius’s small groups and big band.
Mintzer made his mark here immediately. He avoids some of more hysterical musical statements of contemporaries Michael Brecker and Bob Berg and sticks to fluid, linear, mostly logical improvisations and lyrical phrasing, particularly on the extended outro to ‘Seven Stars’. He even throws in some wicked Eric Dolphy-like baritone on the Steve Khan composition ‘Brown Zone’, a crafty blues based on the ‘I Got Rhythm’ changes which Khan recorded as ‘Buddy System’ on his own Let’s Call This album.
The presence of regular ECM engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug also alerts one to the fact that Greenhouse is a very unusual kind of GRP album. Indeed, there is a lovely, panoramic ambience to the whole record. A large orchestra arranged by Vince Mendoza graces several tracks, most notably the stirring nine-minute title tune, creating a stirring counterpoint to Russell Ferrante’s sometimes ecstatic, increasingly Keith Jarrett-influenced piano outpourings (synths are kept to a bare minimum here).
Jimmy Haslip has turned into an expressive though always tasteful bassist with a beautifully resonant tone. His elegant fretless over a delicious, modulating chord sequence on ‘Invisible People’ is worth the price of admission alone. His solo on ‘Indian Summer’ is full of singable phrases, eschewing technical gymnastics in favour of great melodies.
Drummer Will Kennedy swings hard and, again, keeps his technique in check, focusing instead on finding interesting and original rhythms. ‘Seven Stars’ could have featured a regulation medium-swing feel, but he reframes it as an elegant 6/8. Similarly, his unique takes on Latin and African music help to make ‘Invisible People’ and ‘Freedomland’ modern classics.
Still, some may find Yellowjackets’ brand of music a little soft around the edges – it’s certainly not cutting-edge fusion. It resolutely refuses to rock. But Greenhouse remains a jazz/orchestral masterwork on a par with Claus Ogerman/Michael Brecker’s Cityscape, Bill Evans’ Symbiosis or Jaco’s Word Of Mouth.