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Jimmy Haslip: Former Yellowjacket Generating a New Buzz

Richard J Salvucci By

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"I have good people skills. I get them from my family." —JImmy Haslip
Well, the Joint Base San Antonio Fort Sam Houston News Leader is probably not the best place to look for local jazz updates, even if the venue is on the base. "Tickets for the next Friday Night Jazz concert at the Fort Sam Houston Theater are on sale. Featured artists include the Jeff Lorber Fusion with special guest saxophonist [sic] Jimmy Haslip of The Yellowjackets." Not a promising start, unless Jimmy has taken up a new axe and rejoined his old band. It takes about four tries and 30 minutes just to get on the base because I am not a Department of Defense ID cardholder. At the Main Gate, I am directed to an exasperated civilian employee to get a Visitor Pass—a new requirement. The employee knows nothing about the concert and unhappily reveals that there has been a steady stream of visitors inquiring about this jazz thing.

I arrive late for the first set. The guy who I am supposed to meet at the hall- -auspiciously nicknamed Bird—is, at first, undiscoverable. When I do find him, I am directed to wait in the lobby.

This, I think, is a government operation. But it's all worth it.

With due respect to Everette Harp, who is wailing R&B lines and sort of channeling George Coleman at the same time—on saxophone, of course, where he belongs—Haslip, as expected, is on electric bass, but is no longer with The Yellowjackets. Jeff Lorber Fusion is putting on a show, and the crowd audibly loves it. Waiting in the lobby is ok by me. I can listen, right?

Eventually, I make my way backstage where the band is between sets. Haslip greets me with a bear hug, like a long-lost friend. Our planned interview gets rolling even before the second set begins. It turns out to be a memorable evening, and we are just getting started.

Lorber and company (including funk drummer Sonny Emory, whose energy and ability to lock into a melodic groove with Haslip are a highlight of the evening) feature a good sample of their Grammy-nominated recording, Hacienda (Heads Up Records). Significantly, as I later learn, Lorber and Haslip have coproduced the album. After an encore, Haslip ushers me into another room backstage. He starts talking almost immediately: the continuation of an interview we began about a month before. I can hardly believe his energy after what Haslip accurately describes as playing "a lot of notes." We get going for a bit, but then the government buses the band downtown to its hotel. I follow and get lost. I go to the wrong hotel. I finally find Haslip sitting in the lobby of the correct hotel. It is near midnight. His day began at 5 AM in another city. He is drinking a Red Bull. So far, the evening has been surreal.

But worth it.

Really worth it.

Because Jimmy Haslip is a great raconteur. If you think he can play some, you really ought to hear him talk. It is, as they say, a real treat. There's nearly fifty years of experience in music here, a figure that really doesn't belie how young Jimmy was when he started.

At age 62, Haslip is, like me, an aging boomer. But he is a youthful-looking 62. He grew up in a music-loving family, but was the only musician. His formative influences were eclectic and his musical vocabulary is correspondingly broad. "I listen to everything. Everybody has something to offer." His older brother, Gabriel Haslip-Viera, introduced Haslip to Miles Davis but just as importantly to Stravinsky and Mahler, whose influence on Haslip was enormous as well. His parents listened to the swing bands of their youth. As for the rest, Haslip grew up listening to what all the boomers passed through, including elvis, the British invasion, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Motown, the Philly Sound, and, he thoughtfully adds, even to Mantovani and to Bert Kaempfert. "And we're of Puerto Rican heritage," he brightens, so that Mongo Santamaria and the rest of the rich Latin jazz scene was there as well. You'd expect that someone who had all of that pass through his ears would be hard to pigeonhole. And he is. Jimmy started on the trumpet, also played Baritone horn and tuba in high school, where he was a multi-letter athlete. I think to myself that he has retained some of that athleticism into late middle age, and that it probably explains some of his physical energy. Whatever it was about his formative years, including learning the bass by playing lines from a trombone method book, it all worked.

By that I mean, Haslip basically made his name as a pioneering fusion player with what started out as an experimental band, The Yellowjackets, where I first heard him in the 1980s.

He spent 31 years with the 'Jackets, "a lifetime," he calls it, "leaving "on hiatus" in 2012, but in reality, for good. His replacement, fittingly, is Felix Pastorius , Jaco Pastorius son.

Fittingly, one says, because arguably the single greatest musical influence on Haslip, at least as an instrumentalist, and probably on most electric bassists of his generation, was Jaco Pastorius. Haslip's unorthodox technique on the bass, left handed and therefore, backward and upside down, had always suggested that he was self-taught. But it turns out that that's not entirely true. The reading skills he developed studying other instruments are obviously an important part of being a sessions player and studio musician. Yet Haslip has also studied ethnomusicology, following up on an interest that he and keyboardist Russell Ferrante developed in folk music while playing with The Yellowjackets. Haslip met Pastorius largely by coincidence at a studio in California shortly after arriving in LA, hung out with him, shedded with him, listened to music with him, talked to him, ate Mexican food with him, and learned from him. Haslip makes no bones about his respect for Pastorius as the musician who really turned his playing around: "I listened for a while and was completely mesmerized by this guy....It was like a nuclear explosion in my life. It took me to another place I couldn't even imagine. The way he played was very magical and, at the same time, very technical. I put him in the same rank as Jimi Hendrix—as somebody who actually changed the music and the role of the instrument. It was new and fresh and innovative and even visionary." Did Jaco's starting out as a drummer have much to do with Pastorius' unique approach to the bass? "Yes," said Jim "to me the bass acts as a direct link and a partner to the drum set. I see the bass being played like a drum, but it's melodic. It's a melodic drum.... Together they create this really nice marriage of melodicism and rhythm and that's how I look at the instrument... on a basic level."



Reviewing the Yellowjacket's body of work over three decades is enlightening, particularly when you consider that Haslip and Russell Ferrante were there all the way, drummer Will Kennedy (1987-1999, 2010 to present) for much of the time and Bob Mintzer for almost two-thirds. Fans are well aware how substantially the music and the band evolved: from a I-V-vi-IV progression in "Daddy's Gonna Miss You" (Samurai Samba, 1985) to "Greenhouse" (Greenhouse, 1991) which evokes Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," to Mintzer's 3 against 4 "Red Sea" (Run for Your Life, 1993) to the folkish septuple meter of "Timeline" (Timeline, 2011), with a parallel change from an emphasis on electronic to acoustic, and from fusion to something more like straight-ahead. With "Greenhouse," Haslip started out with a number of African melodic motifs which Ferrante further elaborated. The piece was then orchestrated for a 28 piece chamber orchestra by Vince Mendoza, who put his own distinctive stamp on it. To the extent that the band's personnel changed— especially with the addition of Mintzer— and to the extent that a wide array of guest artists from Chuck Findley to Bobby McFerrin expanded their palette, there was a collective sense in the band, as expressed by Haslip, "Well, what are we going to do now?"



One thing the band did was start making appearances with big bands in the 1990s, something that the addition of Mintzer, a veteran of the Tito Puente, Buddy Rich, and Thad Jones Mel Lewis Remembered bands made more logical. Some of the best work is not (yet, or widely) commercially available, but you can view some of the results on YouTube by looking for "Yellowjackets and WDR," namely, the WDR Big Band in Koln,Germany, conducted by Vince Mendoza. It's very interesting to hear "Orange Guitars," which Haslip originally did on his solo recording "Arc" (1993) with Joshua Redman and John Scofield, performed in this way, with a rocking trombone solo and screaming trumpets. A different feel entirely! Or the lovely "Azure Moon" (Like a River, 1993) in 5/4 composed by Mendoza.



So the Yellowjackets' extended run encouraged experimentation and change, and kept long standing-members like Haslip interested and involved. Miles Davis once said that his need to change "[was] like a curse." Some curses are good curses, because, as Haslip puts it, 21 recordings is a lot of music to put down, especially when you're aiming to do it at a consistently high level. "Every record is different," Haslip said, "There is an evolution from 1980 through 2012." The result was 18 GRAMMY nominations with Yellowjackets (he also has 2 with Jeff Lorber Fusion), for a total of 20 and 2 wins, a record that speaks for itself.
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