Regardless of medium – be it music, canvas, film, the written word or any other form – most artists agree that the creative process usually takes them to another place, a level of consciousness that differs dramatically from the everyday experience.
Keyboardist Russell Ferrante, saxophonist Bob Mintzer, bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Marcus Baylor are four such artists. They are known collectively as the Yellowjackets, a quartet that has carved a unique niche in jazz by relentlessly exploring these alternate planes of consciousness time and again for more than two decades. Altered State, their new Heads Up International album (HUCD 3097) is a celebration of that transcendental experience. The recording is also being released simultaneously on SACD in 5.1 Surround Sound (HUSA 9097).
Loaded with odd meters and evocative melodies and harmonies, the album is the result of what happens when four highly talented musicians "get off the tried and true path and find some less-traveled roads," says Ferrante. "It refers to that meditative place where one goes when you engage in whatever creative thing you do."
The eleven tracks get under way with Ferrante’s "Suite 15," a classic Jackets composition set in the ambitious meter of 15 beats per bar. "March Majestic," penned by Mintzer – and outfitted with healthy doses of sax-keyboard interplay – is an infectious track that opens with a classic New Orleans backbeat and segues into a more straight ahead groove.
Vocalist Jean Baylor, who appeared on the Jacket’s two previous studio outings – Time Squared and Peace Round, both released on Heads Up – returns to Altered State in "The Hope," a tune she co-wrote with Ferrante and Haslip. "The Hope," which also features the backing vocals of the Perry sisters, is just what the title suggests, an optimistic and spiritual piece that celebrates the universality of love and its power to overcome any obstacle. "Jean writes beautiful lyrics, and she’s a wonderful singer," says Mintzer. "Just having her on board and in the family has enabled the Yellowjackets to craft these kinds of tunes around her and what she does."
Marcus Baylor contributes "Free Day," a highly atmospheric piece that opens with exotic percussion work, then merges into compelling sax-piano counterpoint. Baylor teams up with Mintzer for "Unity," a reflective closing track that features a rich and melodic bass interlude from Haslip.
The album title is inspired in part by a Peter Max painting commissioned specifically by the Yellowjackets. Max’s cosmic style defined much of the pop art sensibility of the 1960s. Having been a longtime fan of the band, he first approached them at a New York gig in late 2003 and told them how much their music had inspired his work over the years. The following summer, the Jackets gave Max a few preliminary tracks from their upcoming album (yet untitled at that time) and invited him to run it through his unique creative filter. A few months later, Max came up with some ideas that eventually became the cover and title of the album.
"When I saw the abstract paintings that he did, it really seemed to connect to what we were doing musically," Haslip recalls.
Since their earliest days, the Yellowjackets have frequently sought alternatives to the musical mainstream. Altered State, with its frequent explorations of melody and rhythm, is a continuation of that exploratory tradition. Still, the technical aspects of the music take a back seat to the band’s primary objective: making music that’s challenging, accessible and entertaining at the same time.
"Not everybody cares about the time signature in a piece of music," says Baylor. "Some people just listen to it to enjoy it. I want people to be able to enjoy the Yellowjackets’ music, regardless of what the time signature is. That’s the job for all of us."