Jimmy Haslip: The Honest Endeavor of Making Music

Ian Patterson By

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We are all very open-minded, wide open to experiment with all sorts of things. We've always got our thinking caps on, having these brainstorming sessions where we'll talk about various ideas. We're always looking over the fence for the next project.
When electric bassist Jimmy Haslip joined pianist/keyboard player Russell Ferrante as a sideman on guitarist Robben Ford's recording sessions for The Inside Story (Elektra Records, 1979), he probably wouldn't have wagered much on his and Ferrante's musical partnership lasting 33 years to date, in one of jazz's most durable and best-loved ensembles, the Yellowjackets. Haslip is a most lyrical musician, and he brings the elegant tone of an upright bass to his electric model. He talks of "the honest endeavor of making music," and this dedication and humility are the cornerstones of the music that Haslip has made in three decades as cofounding member of the Yellowjackets, and in his numerous parallel projects over the years.

Haslip has good reason to celebrate in 2011: this year is the 30th anniversary of the Yellowjackets, and the band has marked the milestone with its 21st release, Timeline, released under a new label for the band, Mack Avenue Records. Reaction to the album from fans and critics alike has been universally positive, and it is little wonder, as the recording captures the Yellowjackets in outstanding form. The mood of celebration is cemented by the return of Will Kennedy to the drummer's chair, after a hiatus of more than ten years, an event which Haslip describes as "a joyous occasion." However, this is no great nostalgia trip, and true to the Yellowjackets' spirit of adventure, the band has been playing its charts in a big band setting in Sweden. This foray into new musical territory for the band has excited Haslip, Ferrante, Kennedy and saxophonist/composer Bob Mintzer, and Haslip hints that it may yet result in a future recording project. Even when there is plenty of cause to look back and slap each other on the back for a job well done, the Yellowjackets prefer to look forward and continue the line of musical evolution.

In addition, Haslip has just released his third solo CD, Nightfall, in collaboration with producer/arranger/composer and keyboardist, Joe Vannelli. This CD, like Haslip's previous two solo efforts, explores the bassist's Puerto Rican heritage, and Latin rhythms feature predominantly alongside the bassist's virtuoso playing. With a busy schedule as a producer, and ongoing collaborations with keyboardistJeff Lorber, guitarist Allan Holdsworth , and the man who set the ball rolling thirty plus years ago, Robben Ford, Haslip has never been busier, and on the evidence of Timeline and Nightfall, has never sounded better.

All About Jazz: The Yellowjackets have just released its 21st recording and you've also just released your third solo recording; you must be pretty busy on all fronts these days, no?

Jimmy Haslip I'm just back from Sweden, where I spent the last two weeks with the Yellowjacket,s performing with two different big bands over there, the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra and the High Coast Jazz Orchestra. It was all music of the Yellowjackets. We have about 22 pieces of music, which have been arranged for big band. Most of them have been arranged by Bob Mintzer, but we also have quite a few arrangements by Vince Mendoza, and we have a few arrangements by Russell Ferrante.

AAJ: Are there any plans to record the Yellowjackets in a big band setting?

JH: Right now we're thinking that there could possibly be a Yellowjackets big band record in the future. It's something we've been discussing, and I think it would be kind of unique for a group like the Yellowjackets to put out a record with a large ensemble. It's a bona fide idea, and something we'll be looking at seriously for the future. I don't know if it will be our next recording, but I know we're all very interested in planning something like this for a future recording.

AAJ: Let's talk about Timeline; it's the Yellowjackets' 21st album in 30 years which works out as an average of one every 18 months; over such a long number of years that suggests that as a group you enjoy the writing and recording process. Is that fair to say?

JH: Yeah. As a group we feel privileged and fortunate to have had the opportunity to record during our career. Mack Avenue Records is the fourth label we've recorded for in 30 years; we've had two separate recording contracts with Warner Brothers and we were also with MCA Jazz and GRP. We can only be thankful that we've had so many opportunities to record. We don't take any of these opportunities for granted. We know how hard it is to be part of the industry at this point. So, to have this recording out now with a new label is a really good feeling.

AAJ: Some artists might have fifteen labels over 30 years; do you think the relative continuity in the Yellowjackets relationships with these labels has been a factor in the band's longevity and sustained success?

JH: I feel it's definitely a contributing factor. Having the support of a record label provides support on many levels, especially labels which have distribution in countries all over the world. To have that kind of machinery behind you in support of your music really helps. It also supports you in travelling to all of these places to be able to perform. Having the record label behind you, and a band in place to be able to go out and support all of these records in a live situation, is a pretty fertile combination.

AAJ: Thirty years is longer than most marriages; what keeps you guys coming back for more?

The Yellowjackets, from left: Russell Ferrante, Bob Mintzer, Jimmy Haslip, Will Kennedy

JH: [laughs] At this point in time it's become more than just a band, it's become a family. We're all very supportive of each other. We're also very aware of the gift that we have with this band. Being able to sustain a career over 30 years is a gift. The friendships in the band are very strong. I have to mention that not only is Timeline our 21st release in celebration of 30 years together but it's also a celebration of the return of our drummer, William Kennedy, who's back after a gap of ten years. It's a joyous occasion. We have a real chemistry with Will and we're very, very excited about it.

AAJ: How did Marcus Baylor and William Kennedy come to pass each other in the revolving door? Baylor is a wonderful polyrhythmic drummer and he played just great for a decade with the Yellowjackets.

JH: Absolutely. It was a very easy transition. The reason Will decided to leave the band in 1998 was because he had some very interesting and wonderful opportunities, which were going to come together in a very nice way for him. When Marcus became available to join the band Will was very gracious about handing over the chair. Marcus was thrilled to come into the band. He spent ten years with us and worked on six recordings with us. That's a very substantial body of work. But after ten years we started feeling that we needed to make a change and I think Marcus felt that way as well. It was a mutual decision. I believe Marcus had some things in line that he wanted to pursue on his own, which prompted all this. We decide to see if Will Kennedy would be available and willing to come back into the band. When approached he was more than happy to come back, which was a fantastic day for us all. I know he reached out to Marcus and they had some really nice conversations during this time.

Some people might think that there was some kind of tumultuous thing going on but I'd like to dispel that. These changes have happened very naturally and without any controversy.

AAJ: Replacing a drummer in a band might be analogous to major surgery but, listening to Timeline, it sounds like Will Kennedy has never been away; how was the transition from a musical perspective?

JH: [laughs] We all say it's like riding a bicycle; even during the ten year period when Will wasn't in the Yellowjackets, we were still doing things together outside of the group, various projects and recording sessions. We were still very good friends. There was a transitional period when he came back into the fold early last year but it was a fairly natural and quick transition. It was like...dancing with my wife.

AAJ: Timeline sounds like a classic Yellowjackets album; the compositions are strong, the playing is great, it's beautifully melodic, and there's evolution in the music, which has marked pretty much all of the Yellowjackets recordings; do you have a sense of where this album stands in the Yellowjackets' discography?

JH: I know we're all very proud of this record. In a way, we were forced to put this project together very quickly and put it on the table because we all have very busy personal schedules. Bob Mintzer and Russell Ferrante are both professors at the University of Southern California and they have a pretty extensive schedule there. And on top of all the outside work we're all doing, sessions, and producing records and so on. Timeline was done in one week and we're very proud of that. The music is very challenging and we felt the body of music was worthy of recording.

I have to say we're getting wonderful write-ups and wonderful feedback from our fan base, so it's all working out beautifully for us. We're proud of the fact that we've been together 30 years, so there's a lot going on with this record. So, aside from the music and the quality of the music it is also a celebration on many levels. We're very happy with the results. We've been out on the road touring and supporting it, and getting really great responses in our live performances as well.

AAJ: Without Robben Ford the Yellowjackets might never have come into existence; was bringing Ford in to play on "Magnolia" purely a purely celebration?

JH: Yes. We gave that some thought. At one point there was an idea to bring in a cast to mark this special recording and of course the first guy we thought of was Robben. As you mentioned, without Robben we might never have had a Yellowjackets. He's responsible for initially putting the band together. We thought of him first. I am working with Robben; we're in a band called Renegade Creation and we did one record last year, and we've been touring on and off over the last year-and-a-half with that band, with Michael Landau and Gary Novak. Robben and I have been playing together ever since he left the Yellowjackets. We've known each other for a very long time and we're very good friends. He's actually subbed for Bob Mintzer over the years, so it was an easy thing to ask him if he'd be available to come and join us on this record, and he was more than happy to do so. I felt "Magnolia" was a perfect setting for him. We had a wonderful day with Robben when he came in to play this piece for us.



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