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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.

AAJ: Timeline features trumpeter John Diversa on a couple of tracks and, following the Yellowjackets previous album, which featured guitarist Mike Stern, I wonder if it ever crossed your minds to bring in another member, either a guitarist or a trumpeter?

JH: No, we've never really discussed that, though we're always very open to collaborative projects like the Heads Up record with Mike Stern. That was an experiment and a wonderful one, I felt. In the past, we've done collaborative projects with many people, including Bobby McFerrin, Michael Franks, and we did a record for GRP called Like a River, where we brought in a wonderful trumpet player by the name of Tim Hagans. He also played on the record that followed, Run for Your Life and other musicians have guested and collaborated with us over the years.

On this record, Bob Mintzer felt that he wanted to have some of the melodies performed by trumpet and saxophone, and we brought in John Diversa, a local musician from Los Angeles. He's a wonderful player who also has his own big band. Little things like this we added to the record, just to bring in another color. We're always looking to experiment with the music.

AAJ: Although the Yellowjackets have always evolved musically—something to be expected over a period of 30 years—do you think it's fair to say that Bob Mintzer marked a before-and-after in the music of the band?

JH: Oh yeah, most definitely. Bob's brought so much to the band. With his expertise in running big bands over the last 30 years or more, he brings in a lot of elements to the group that expand its capabilities and afford us many interesting opportunities to do a lot of things many other bands don't have chance to do. We feel very fortunate, on many levels, to have the personnel that we have. The four of us are very open-minded, and wide open to experiment with all sorts of things. We've always got our thinking caps on, and we're always having these brainstorming sessions where we'll talk about various ideas. We're always looking over the fence for the next project.

AAJ: How much of the music on Timeline was written by Russell and Bob prior to getting together and how much of it was shaped when the four of you did get together?

JH: As I said, the music for this recording was put together fairly quickly although I know Russell and Bob both spent a lot of time on writing prior to the recording, and they had accumulated a whole pile of music between them. Bob had four pieces and Russell had five. We realized we had a really solid bunch of songs that we could definitely hang our hat on and record. Then Russell added a piece, and I had one piece I'd written with Russell, and Will had a piece of music that he'd been working on, so between us all we completed the repertoire for the recording, but Bob and Russ did the lion's share of the writing. Having four people doing the writing gives you plenty of options and room, my perspective is it really gave the record a pretty serious focus

AAJ: There's a nice mixture of music stylistically on Timeline but I think it contains some of the strongest ballads the band has ever written, particularly, "My Soliloquy," "Single Step" and "I Do." There's such poetry in the music of these songs that I wondered whether they stem from lyrics at all?

JH: No, though I stand corrected if I'm wrong. Russell and Bob are very prolific songwriters and they have a very serious, lyrical sense about them which is very evident in these compositions.

AAJ: You and Russell Ferrante go back a long time; how did you first come to make music with Russell?

JH: I met Russell through Robben Ford. I'd met Robben in '77 or '78 and he had asked me to work on his first recording which was a record called Inside Story (Elektra, 1979), and once we started working on that, he mentioned bringing down a pianist from northern California that he'd been working with. Robben and Russell had been working with some very prominent blues artists like Charlie Musselwhite and Jimmy Witherspoon, and they'd also done a lot of gigs together as the Robben Ford Band. That's how I met Russ, and we really hit it off. We started working on other projects together. We went on the road with Tom Scott and Steve Khan's band, and we did several recordings for singer here in Los Angeles called Marilyn Scott and we actually did some writing for her. Things just blossomed from there in the late '70s and we've been making music together for thirty three years now.We have a lot in common: we love music ,and there's serious chemistry there for composition and playing music. It's become more of a brotherhood.

AAJ: Just a year or two before you met Russell Ferrante you were in guitarist Tommy Bolin's last touring band; what was that experience like?

JH: I really enjoyed working with Tommy. I was introduced to Tommy by a keyboardist/organist and singer, Mark Stein, who was the original organist and lead singer of a group called Vanilla Fudge. I met Mark here in L.A. in the mid '70s through Carmine Appice, who was the original drummer in Vanilla Fudge. We all got together and worked in the studio on various projects. Mark was playing keyboards in Tommy's band and one day he called me and asked me if I would be interested in auditioning for Tommy's band. I auditioned and I got the gig and ended up touring with Tommy for a good nine months. It was a wonderful experience. Of course, Tommy had his demons and they caught up with him which was a very sad day. But I only have very positive thoughts about working with Tommy; he was a great guy and a wonderful musician. I was honored to have worked with him.

AAJ: Coming back to the Yellowjackets, with 21 albums and several hundred compositions under the Yellowjackets' collective belt, how much of a process is to decide what songs you're going to include in a set or on a tour?

JH: That's always kind of difficult. We now have over 400 tunes. We have a strong repertoire right now. We have a 60-song repertoire that is active right now and we are constantly changing a song here or there but it's a pretty solid repertoire we've been building these last couple of years. It includes material which represents a lot of the recordings we've done but we can't represent them all. We still play a couple of pieces from the first two recordings. We can't play everybody's favorite, but we have a nice, wide variety.

AAJ: Your own songwriting talents have come to light again with the release of Nightfall . How long was this in the making?

JH: The writing process was over the course of a year or so. I had about seven or eight pieces. In fact, one of the pieces ended up on Life Cycle, a piece called "Lozaro." I got together with Joe Vannelli four years ago and played him some of the material and he really liked it, and we decided to work together on this their record. Unfortunately, I was extremely busy with other projects, including the Yellowjackets and he was extremely busy producing REO Speedwagon and Burt Cummings, and other things besides, so our schedules were full up with a lot of different projects. It took us close to four years to put all the music together, working on it whenever we had the opportunity. Sometimes it would be five or six months before we would see each other. That's how it went down. I had serious doubts about it when it was all finished because so much time had passed; I really wasn't sure how cohesive the project was. Joe is a very talented producer, and he has a great way of looking at things and he was an extreme help in getting this record together. He assures me we were doing the right thing and that we had made a very nice recording.

AAJ: Can you tell us about the musicians you brought in to work on Nightfall?

JH: We had serious budget limitations so initially this was a duo recording and we put all the music together just the two of us. Once we got to a point where everything felt sturdy, we listened and made notes as to what elements might be missing. Then we cast all the songs and brought people in like Bob Mintzer, and some hand percussionists and added percussion to what we had already programmed. We also used a lot of loops as well. We put together a horn section of three pieces which consisted of Bob Mintzer on tenor, Steve Tavaglione on alto and Wayne Bergeron on trumpet, a wonderful local musician. I also had [saxophonist] Katisse Buckingham to play flute on "Pablo Alto," and a vibraphonist by the name of Roger Burn play a few things. We thought it would be best to wait until we had finished arranging everything and putting all the tracks together, before we brought these other folks in.

AAJ: Nightfall, like your previous solo CD Red Heat, has quite a Latin vibe ; if you hadn't gone down the Yellowjackets road might you have joined or formed a Latin band at all?

JH: Yeah, well, I've given that some though. I have done that locally in Los Angeles. I put together a sextet and we did some gigs around town. That was piano, bass, saxophone and three percussionists. I really enjoyed doing that and it's something that could happen in the near future. We'll see where it goes.

AAJ: A great track on Nightfall is "Casa de Oro," which has a real Fania All Stars vibe to it—at least until the bass kicks in. Were the Fania All Stars an influence?

JH: Yeah, I'm half-Puerto Rican, so I grew up with a lot of Latin music as a very young kid. In our household my mother and father would listen to everything like Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz. All that music was floating all over the household, and of course, the Fania All Stars. I actually had the privilege of working with Ruben Blades in the last couple of years.

AAJ:I thought he'd withdrawn from gradually from music these last few years, since entering into politics; is he still recording and gigging?

JH: Yes, he is. In fact I did a record with his wife, Ruba Mesa and he came out on the road with that and we did some gigs. It was almost like Brazilian music, but it also had some influence of salsa and of course Ruben fits right into the picture there.

AAJ: This Latin side, which is obviously a part of you, doesn't really come through in the music of the Yellowjackets; would you like to bring some Latin elements into the band's sound?

JH: I am very happy working on stuff like this on my own. The Yellowjackets has a sound and there is some Latin influence in the music on occasion but it's not a prominent influence. I decided if I was going to do my own recordings, which started with a record called Arc(GRP, 1993) back in the early '90s with Vince Mendoza, I felt that I needed to establish a completely different identity and to diversify from what I was doing with the Yellowjackets. The Latin influence was a no brainer, it's naturally a part of who I am, and so I decided to concentrate on the Latin influence for my solo recordings.

AAJ: Although your solo discography isn't extensive, you do a lot of projects with other musicians; what's in the pipeline?

JH: Quite a bit [laughs]. I'm actually now producing five recordings. I'm mixing two records, one by a New York band called E.S.P. and another by a vibraphonist in a group called Shapes. This is my third recording g with them. I'm in pre-production with three other records and I'm about to do a series of concerts with Jeff Lorber. I co-produced his last CD, Now's the Time (heads Up, 2011) which was nominated for Grammy. I'll be performing with him this year and we're brainstorming on producing his follow-up record. I also mentioned the rock-blues group, Renegade Creation, with Robben Ford, [guitarist]Michael Landau and [drummer] Gary Novak, and we're trying to schedule a second recording; we have quite a few dates on the books, I'm doing some recording with [guitarist] Allan Holdsworth; I've been in his quartet with [pianist] Allan Pasqua and [drummer] Chad Wackerman for the past three years, and Allan's working on a new solo record so I have to schedule few recording days with him. There's more but I think you get the picture.

Selected Discography
Yellowjackets, Timeline (Mack Avenue Records, 2011)
Jimmy Haslip, Nightfall (Brandon Rieck, 2011) Yellowjackets, Lifecycle (Heads Up, 2008)
Yellowjackets, Twenty-Five (Heads Up International, 2006)
Yellowjackets, Altered State (Heads Up International, 2005)
Yellowjackets, Times Squared (Heads Up International, 2003)
Yellowjackets, Peace Round: A Christmas Celebration (Heads Up International, 2003)
Yellowjackets, Mint Jam (Yellowjackets Ent, 2001)
Jimmy Haslip, Red Heat (Unitone, 2000)
Yellowjackets, Club Nocturne (Warner Brothers, 1998)
Yellowjackets, Blue Hats (Warner Brothers, 1997)
Yellowjackets, Dreamland Warner Brothers, 1995)
Yellowjackets, Run for Your Life (GRP, 1994)
Jimmy Haslip, Arc (GRP, 1993)
Yellowjackets, Like a River (GRP, 1993)
Yellowjackets, Live Wires (GRP, 1992)
Yellowjackets, Greenhouse (GRP, 1991)
Yellowjackets, The Spin (MCA, 1989)
Yellowjackets, Politics (MCA, 1988)
Yellowjackets, Four Corners (MCA, 1987)
Yellowjackets, Samurai Samba (Warner Bros., 1985)
Yellowjackets, Mirage a Trois (Warner Bros., 1983)
Yellowjackets, Yellowjackets (Warner Bros., 1981)
Robben Ford, The Inside Story (Elektra Records, 1979)

Photo Credits
Pages 1, 4: Nelson Onofre
Page 2: Courtesy of Mack Avenue Records and The Yellowjackets


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