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 Passa 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 Birdis, 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 timeon saxophone, of course, where he belongsHaslip, 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
, 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
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 Hendrixas 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.
Yet success has a downside too. For one, there is the road. Not everyone hates touring, but age and family responsibilities make it increasingly less attractive. Toward the end of his stint with the 'Jackets, Haslip figures he was on the road 9 months a year, including other commitments he had made. It was a kind of crazy existence, and his friends, especially his brother Gabriel, urged him to cut back a bit on the travel. The vagaries of the music business, especially over the past decade, tend to push players in different directions as well.
A change of labels had induced the Yellowjackets to self-produce their first double-album, Mint Jam (2001). Despite numerous warnings about not trying this, the recording was both a commercial and artistic success, and includes such great tracks as "Less is Mo," "Motet" and "Mofongo." Haslip increasingly found himself drawn into producing, not as a substitute for playing, but as another source of creative expression. As he explains it, Haslip's education as a producer was hands-on, learn-by-doing. In his mind, he learned from some of the best: the legendary Tommy LiPuma
, who produced Mirage a Trois for the 'Jackets (1983), and who showed Haslip the importance of "a positive environment... with positive results for making music"; Eddie Offord, who produced Yes
and Emerson, Lake & Palmer
; the late, and as Haslip calls him, the "iconic" Tom Dowd; and the late Andy Johns, who produced Led Zeppelin in the 1970s, Gary Katz, The Mamas & the Papas, Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night
, Steely Dan
, Don Gehman, John Mellencamp
, Hootie and the Blowfish, Blues Traveler, Jimmy Barnes and Tracy Chapman. Aside from the technical and engineering aspects of production, he found the whole of his experience with The Yellowjackets to be helpful. As an experienced studio and sessions player, Haslip made a wide range of contactshere, in Europe and in Asia. These musicians would become an important element of what he could bring to producing.
Haslip sees production as a multifaceted act. He needs not only a coherent vision of someone else's musical projecteverything from budgets to personnelbut also a sense of when and where to inject himself, and when to hang back. Typically, he follows someone else's choice of personnel for a recording, but occasionally, he will draw on his own experiences if he thinks another choice will work better. Even the graphics of a project, the artwork that subtly defines the content, is a concern of his. As Haslip puts it, this is as question of "enticing" a listener not only by who's playing what and how, but what mood the finished product evokes in a potential listener. A lot of striking cover art on the 'Jackets work underscores the idea, with one, the cover for Altered State (2005) done by Peter Max. Even the wryly entitled Politics (1988),a collage art piece by artist Lou Beach, with its last piece of the pie summarizes the band's view of the music business at the time. As Haslip emphasizes, producing is not a part-time gig or a casual pursuit. "I have good people skills," Haslip says, "I get them from my family." Combining the skills of a designer, player, psychologist, contractor, engineer and marketer in one person is not for everyone. As Haslip tells it, the fact that most of his production work takes place in Los Angeles makes life a lot easier for someone with a family than the life of a touring musician although he continues to travel extensively. And it brings its own kind of creative challengedifferent from what you face as a player and improviser. To date, Haslip has produced nearly 100 recordingsover 20 alone since leaving the Yellowjacketsand, as he likes to put it, "is generating a buzz." This is, in short, what it takes to be successful in an increasingly difficult commercial environment for music.
Curious, I asked Haslip what the future might hold for him, especially as an instrumentalist. Does he have unfulfilled ambitions? Is there something, after nearly half a century in the business, he'd still like to do? He considers the question for a bit and then answers a little unexpectedly, "I'd like to play with Jimi Hendrix
." I laugh and say I'm sure a lot of people would like to play with Bird. "That too," he responds. So maybe we'll just leave it to a higher power to figure that one out. Right now, Jimmy Haslip has more than enough to keep him busy right here.