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If the Yellowjackets needed a guest guitarist, who would be the best person for the job? Pat Metheny would be an excellent choice, as would Al di Meola, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, or John Scofield. Well, the Yellowjackets did hire a guest guitarist for Lifecycle -- an excellent and well-known guitarist, in fact -- and they feature him extensively on this 2008 release. The guitarist is Mike Stern, who enjoys a strong rapport with the Yellowjackets' 2008 lineup: Russell Ferrante on acoustic piano and electric keyboards, Jimmy Haslip on electric bass, Bob Mintzer on tenor and soprano sax and bass clarinet, and Marcus Baylor on drums and percussion. Stern and the Yellowjackets are a perfectly logical combination -- especially in light of the hell-bent-for-jazz direction the Yellowjackets have favored since 1991's Greenhouse. With Greenhouse (which was Mintzer's first album with the outfit), Ferrante and Haslip made it clear that they wanted the Yellowjackets to be considered a serious, heavy-duty jazz combo instead of a group that pandered to smooth jazz stations. That isn't to say that the Yellowjackets' 1980s output lacks merit -- many of their '80s recordings are quite creative -- but with Greenhouse, Ferrante and Haslip really emphasized their Weather Report/Miles Davis/Return to Forever heritage. And that mindset continues to serve the Yellowjackets well 17 years later on Lifecycle. Jazz purists and bop snobs, of course, would argue that if you use electric instruments and have been influenced by rock or funk in any way, you aren't playing jazz, but the truth is that Stern and the Yellowjackets do bring a serious jazz improviser's mentality to engaging tracks like Haslip's bluesy "Country Living," Mintzer's mysterious "Falken's Maze," and Ferrante's probing, somewhat John Coltrane-ish "Measure of a Man." With its blend of electric and acoustic instruments, Lifecycle is relevant to both fusion and post-bop -- and it is also proof that collaborating with Stern was a very wise move for the Yellowjackets.

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