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Bob Mintzer: Amazing Reach

Bob Kenselaar By

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Reaching other people with the music - that’s an amazing thing... I know when I hear great music, it makes me hopeful and inspired and optimistic, and that’s a great way to influence people.
For about half of his four decade-long career in jazz, Bob Mintzer has been a member of the Yellowjackets, one of the most enduring, distinctive and creative bands in contemporary jazz. But, oddly enough, this association is a relatively small slice of Mintzer's remarkably multifaceted life in music as a saxophonist, bass clarinetist, composer, arranger, educator and leader of his own big bands and small groups. For Mintzer, the phrase "busy as a bee" certainly applies.

Born in 1953 in New Rochelle, New York, a town that sits just two miles north of New York City, Mintzer has been an active professional jazz musician ever since his college days at the Manhattan School of Music. Beginning in 1975, he had a two-and-a-half year stint with the Buddy Rich Big Band, where he started writing and arranging for large ensembles. His playing and writing experience there led to a spot with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. By the early 1980s, Mintzer was leading his own big band, performing at Seventh Avenue South, the legendary New York City club owned by Randy Brecker and Michael Brecker, and recording for Digital Music Products (DMP), one of the first fully digital recording labels. He joined the Yellowjackets in 1991, bringing a straight-ahead jazz sensibility to a band that had already begun blending such flavoring in with its earlier R&B and fusion sound. Other important associations Mintzer has had over the years include such musicians as percussionist Tito Puente, drummer Art Blakey, bassist Jaco Pastorius and Gil Evans, in addition to session work for Aretha Franklin, James Taylor and many others.

Mintzer has written some 200 arrangements for big band. He's recorded more than 30 albums as a leader and played on hundreds of others. His Homage to Count Basie (DMP) won a Grammy award for best large jazz-ensemble recording in 2001, and, in all, he's has been nominated for 13 Grammys for his solo work, big-band CDs and work with the Yellowjackets. He's been based in Los Angeles since 2008, when he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California, where he now heads the jazz studies program and holds the Bowen H. "Buzz" McCoy and Barbara M. McCoy endowed chair in jazz.

The Bob Mintzer Big Band began an association with the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild MCG Jazz label beginning in 2004, after a long relationship with DMP that resulted in 12 albums. The band's fourth release on MCG is a Brazilian-flavored recording, For the Moment (MCG, 2012).

All About Jazz: What inspired you to focus your big band on the sounds of Brazil with For the Moment?

Bob Mintzer: The idea for this CD came about from meeting Chico Pinheiro, a great guitarist, singer and composer. We had a very modern-day kind of meeting-online, on Facebook initially. Somebody recommended I check him out. I went to his Facebook page and listened to his music. I was very taken with it, and I left him a message. It turned out he was a fan of mine and had done his final project at Berklee on my writing. We had lunch when I was still living in New York and talked about doing something together. The first thing we did, I played on his recording There's a Storm Inside (Sunnyside, 2010). And it was soon after that that I started to think about doing a Brazilian big-band project. I looked to him, and he was eager. Chico contributed two original compositions and also performs on "Corcovado," and he sings and plays guitar beautifully on those. Marty Ashby plays guitar on the rest of the album, and he's a beautiful player as well.

With my own writing on the CD, I focused on different cities and places that I've been to in Brazil that have their own indigenous style of music and rhythms, and this inspired me to write a bunch of original tunes as well as arrange some of the standard tunes typically associated with the Brazilian songbook. We went to Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in Pittsburgh, did two concerts and recorded them, and hence we have this CD. It was really a nice experience-very challenging and inspiring to work with Chico, a great, great musician. I think, sonically, this may be one of the better records I've made. The woodwind writing and the textural elements really turned out well on this one. It's a nice-sounding record that features a lot of musical devices and great playing.

AAJ: One of the tunes on the album, "For All We Know," might not seem an obvious choice for the Brazilian theme, but this was inspired by Claus Ogerman's original arrangements for Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Is Ogerman an influence on your writing?

BM: Yes, indeed, clearly. He really was an innovator in terms of orchestration and using such a vast array of colors and textures in arranging.

AAJ: Who are some others who have influenced you?

BM: I've studied a lot of different arrangers, from Duke Ellington and all the great writers and arrangers in the Basie band to Gil Evans and just about everyone-anyone and anybody in and out of jazz music.

AAJ: There are four original compositions of yours on the recording. What was your approach to composing for these tunes?

BM: The first composition on the CD is called "Aha," and it's actually a tune that I wrote for the Yellowjackets, at least initially. It kind of morphed into this tune that had this sort of funny little groove-it tilts over into the Brazilian rhythm called baião a little bit. And it's a fun sort of open tune for soloing, too.

AAJ: The title track, "For the Moment," is based on another composition.

BM: I took the harmony of "Never Let Me Go," which is such a great tune, and I kind of fashioned it into this little Brazilian-tinged tune that features a woodwind section using a nice, light sound. The title for my tune comes from the idea of being present in whatever you do in the moment, for the moment-living for the moment. Another CD of mine not too long ago had a similar title, In the Moment (Art of Life, 2007), so I guess I must feel strongly about this way of thinking.



AAJ: You only solo on three of the tunes on the album, and you also leave room for Bob Malach to solo.

BM: He's a great tenor saxophonist. What's interesting is that one reviewer of the CD said that I took all the solos and didn't leave enough room for other people, but I disagree with this completely. As a big-band leader, it's so important to have as many players as possible to solo. That's part of the joy and beauty of big bands, and I'm always very vigilant of that and do my utmost to make sure that everyone gets to play.

AAJ: In addition to Chico Pinheiro, another important musician featured on the CD is Russell Ferrante.

BM: Russell is one of the greatest piano players I know. He's a team player. He's one of the best accompanists there is, a dynamic soloist. I'm comfortable with using him on any project I do. One of the all-time greats. Clearly an unsung hero in many ways. A very quiet, unassuming guy, and I think he deserves a lot more recognition than he gets.

AAJ: Peter Erskine plays a prominent role on the CD, too.

BM: Yes, Peter is a long-time friend. We actually met in high school. We went to an arts high school together in 1969, the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, and we've collaborated on many things since then. We started out on similar paths. I joined Buddy Rich; he went with Stan Kenton and later Maynard Ferguson. He then joined Weather Report, and we kind of met up in Jaco Pastorius' band in the early '80s and wound up playing on each other's solo recordings. Now, since I moved to Los Angeles, we're both on the faculty at USC and play together all the time.

AAJ: You mentioned Marty Ashby as playing guitar on the CD. He also played an important role with his connection with the Manchester Craftsman's Guild.

BM: He's a very well-rounded person. He's a great musician and a great organizer of jazz music, and he does it all. I'm so very grateful for all that he does-somebody who pioneers the cause of jazz music in a huge way.

AAJ: Switching over to your work with the Yellowjackets, the band had a recent change in personnel, with Felix Pastorius filling in for Jimmy Haslip on bass. How do you find playing with Felix?

BM: Felix is a really excellent musician-very clever guy. He's doing very nicely with the band. We're all having a great time working with him. We're getting ready to do a new recording with him soon, which we're looking forward to.



AAJ: You did some outstanding work with Jaco Pastorius, such as his big band featured on the Birthday Concert (Warner Bros., 1981). How do you compare your work with Jaco and Felix?

BM: Working with Jaco was very interesting and challenging. He had some really unusual concepts and ideas. He, obviously, was a very great bassist, as is Felix. Felix, while he's been influenced by his dad, as any electric bassist has been, he's got some stuff of his own. He's extremely clever and hard working. When he solos on Yellowjackets tunes, he really gets inside the harmony and plays some unexpected things, really brilliant things. I mean, Jaco was that way, too. Jaco played in that era, when we were young, playing with a lot of bands-Wayne Cochran, Blood, Sweat and Tears and, of course, Weather Report. I think there are fewer opportunities right now to hone your craft playing, so Jaco had a little edge, maybe, but Felix is coming along. He's definitely someone to watch. Being with the Yellowjackets, I think, will be a huge opportunity for him for a lot of growth. Both Pastoriuses are pretty challenging and inspiring.

AAJ: Another record of yours that comes to mind with Jaco Pastorius is I Remember Jaco (Novus, 1992).

BM: The situation there came out of meeting a producer who was doing some things for BMG in Japan. I think I had just joined the Yellowjackets and was interested in doing a little small band project separate from the band. I just thought that doing a tribute to Jaco, who had such a profound effect on my musicianship, seemed like a good idea, and they liked the idea, so that's how that all came about. I did a second project for BMG, Twin Tenors (Novus, 1994), where Michael Brecker and I played together.

AAJ: One curious thing about the Yellowjackets is that you'll still see it referred to as primarily a fusion group. With the earliest iteration of the band, that was true, but it seems pretty much straight-ahead jazz lately. Do you characterize it as fusion in your mind?



BM: I don't bother characterizing it. I mean, the band's been around for over 30 years now, and it's taken on a life and momentum all its own. It's just a Yellowjackets sound. There are courses taught at major universities on the music of the Yellowjackets. It's gone so far beyond the original fusion genre. In a band that's a collaborative effort like the Yellowjackets, whenever there's a personnel change, the music changes accordingly. When I got in the band, I brought a straight-ahead sensibility to what was already there. The music sort of goes well beyond categorization, I feel. And we leave it at that. Everyone is a prolific composer, and everyone is encouraged to contribute compositionally. We try to come up with music that's compelling and interesting to play, and it's Yellowjackets music, for sure. Many people say they hear a couple of bars, and they know that it's Yellowjackets. The way we approach rhythm and melody and harmony and the way we interact-all of those little details-that's how music works.
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