Saxophonist Eric Marienthal gave the Yellowjackets a new personality.
Saxophonist Eric Marienthal gave the Yellowjackets a new personality. (Concord Records/umg)
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Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Yellowjackets

When the Yellowjackets performed at Blues Alley on Thursday night, the contemporary jazz ensemble didn't sound entirely like itself. Guest saxophonist Eric Marienthal had the unenviable task of filling in for the renowned reedman and composer Bob Mintzer, who's taking a short break from touring with the band.

Playing soprano and alto saxophones, Marienthal brought both a sunny lyricism and a keening R&B tone to the quartet's opening set. Best known in fusion jazz circles for his work with Chick Corea's Elektric Band, he proved especially adept at modulating his choruses until they reached a dramatic pitch, a strategy that culminated in a stirring rendition of keyboardist Russell Ferrante's gospel-charged anthem "Revelation."

Among the pieces drawn from the band's new CD "Lifecycle" was Mintzer's "Falken's Maze," a jazz-funk tune equipped with sleek harmonies and an insistent beat. While the recorded version showcases guest guitarist Mike Stern's fluid lines and blues bends, in concert the tune took on a different dynamic, emphasizing the kinetic interplay developed by Marienthal, six-string bass guitarist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Marcus Baylor.

Marienthal didn't always compensate for the absence of Mintzer, who plays various woodwind instruments, including B-flat and bass clarinets, on the band's new album. But he certainly proved his mettle during contrasting, back-to-back performances of "Claire's Closet" and "Sea Folk," both composed by Ferrante. The latter piece also was enlivened by Haslip's slippery improvisation, Ferrante's darting runs and Baylor's sharply syncopated funk attack.

The engagement runs through Sunday.

-- Mike Joyce

The Pacifica Quartet

The Pacifica Quartet continued its fervent advocacy of the Elliott Carter oeuvre Thursday at the Library of Congress. After an impressive performance of the Quartet No. 5 earlier this season, here the group presented the 1997 Piano Quintet, bookended by meaty 19th-century masterpieces of Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

Carter, who will turn 100 this December and is still actively composing, remains a polarizing figure. Many of the world's greatest artists -- Pierre Boulez, James Levine, Charles Rosen, Daniel Barenboim -- tirelessly play and promote his music. In this centennial, performances are coming fast and thick. But will the meme that we are in the presence of a genius ever really take hold?

Carter has rethought and rewritten all the basic rules as to what constitutes "music." He once taught math and physics, and his harmonic and rhythmic materials arise from applications of combinatorics and set theory. This is interesting to analyze in composition seminars, but the sonic result is simply chaos. There are no guideposts, large or small, whereby a listener could sense any natural reason for the events that are heard. The musical lines are independent to the point of glossolalia, which leads inexorably to the emperor's-new-clothes question: If it sounds wrong when it's right, how do you know if it's wrong? And thus listener fatigue sets in.

Defenders point to Carter's sense of "fantasy," or "drama," and indeed his music is often kaleidoscopic and whimsical. In a performance such as Thursday's, in which the performers were thoroughly committed (particularly the intense and acrobatic guest pianist Christopher Taylor), one can be drawn in for a time by the quirky textures, the virtuosity and the sense of a wholly different universe. But as a musical experience that one carries home and seeks to revisit? Perhaps several generations from now.

In the standard works before and after the Carter salute, Pacifica's musicmaking was high voltage and thoughtful, but sometimes fell short. The members often chose fast tempos that ironed out any opportunities for expression, or else they varied the tempo so widely (as in the finale of the Mendelssohn Op. 13) that structural cohesion was lost. They did draw some transitions in the Adagio of Beethoven's Op. 59, No. 1, that were pure magic.

-- Robert Battey

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