2006 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Yellowjackets. It has been a quarter of a century of continuous evolution, both musically and in terms of changes in band personnel.
From their R&B beginnings with guitarist Robben Ford in '81 right through to the sophisticated and utterly distinctive brand of jazz that they play today, the Yellowjackets have moved with the times, absorbing different aspects of world music and adding new rhythms and influences to the pot.
Original founding members, keyboardist Russell Ferrante and bassist Jimmy Haslip have steered the Yellowjackets across the seven seas, navigated some stormy passages along the way, and have almost had to man the lifeboats on occasion.
They have, however endured, and since the addition of long serving crew member saxophonist/arranger Bob Mintzer, the Yellowjackets have plotted new and exciting musical courses. And, with the drum stool held since 2000 by the polyrhythmic Marcus Baylor, the band has found a new stability and dynamism.
The release of the celebratory live album/DVD 25 (Heads Up International, 2006) and their recent concerts show the Yellowjackets to be in very fine form indeed. The Yellowjackets seem set for a few circumnavigations of the globe yet.
Keyboardist Russell Ferrante took time out to tell AAJ about the band's highs and lows, his enduring thirty-year musical relationship with bassist Jimmy Haslip and the band's plans for the next twenty five years.
All About Jazz: Twenty five years is a long time; are you at all surprised at the longevity of the band?
Russell Ferrante: We've been enjoying ourselves so much that the time has flown by. In retrospect I guess it's uncommon to keep a band together for so long, but we're always looking ahead and don't spend a lot of time in the past.
AAJ: The name Yellowjackets was pretty much picked out of a hat; can you remember any of the competing names you could have been stuck with for twenty five years?
RF: You know I honestly don't. I recall Jimmy arriving at the studio with a sheet of names. It was a kind of a blur. For some unknown reason Yellowjackets popped out of the list and here we are.
AAJ: The sound of the band has evolved greatly since 1981; can you envisage or imagine such great change in the band's sound in say, another ten or twenty years?
RF: It's possible. The biggest changes in direction have come as a result of personnel changes. When someone new arrives, we want to fully incorporate their talents into the band sound. There are always interests and talents that may be lying in wait for the right circumstances to allow them to blossom.
AAJ: To celebrate twenty five years you released an album/DVD, 25; did you record all the concerts of the tour for the for the CD/DVD and choose the best concert? Was that the idea from the outset or did you consider recording songs from different gigs?
RF: 25 was recorded during a three-week European tour in October, 2005. We only filmed the Forli, Italy concert, but we were able to audio record about half the shows. When you perform there are many variables and unknowns. They range from the acoustics of the hall and the condition of the piano, the audience response, etc. to the band's energy level. Some times we got into our van right after the gig and drove twenty hours before performing the next night.
From the outset we anticipated that there would be a lot of variation in the quality of the performances and wanted to give ourselves and our fans the best chance of capturing something really special. I think we were fortunate that the Forli concert and the Paris shows were two such evenings.
AAJ Tony Zawinul directed the DVD; how did you get involved with him?
RF: We've known Tony several years and actually started talking about working with him a few years ago. It really took shape however when he came to see us play in Milan, where he lives, about four years ago. He was really excited about the prospect of traveling with us and documenting the band. Our twenty-fifth anniversary seemed like the ideal opportunity to do this. For your information, there is a lot of behind the scenes footage and concert footage that didn't make it onto the DVD. Tony intends to edit this and release it as an hour-long documentary.
AAJ: Can you tell us something about the writing process of the Yellowjackets?
RF Compositions evolve in many different ways. Often they begin as collaboration between a couple of us or in some cases the entire band, either at rehearsal or sound check. At that point we'll record the initial idea and then one of us will endeavor to develop it into a complete piece. Other times, one of us may bring a fully formed composition. In that instance however, each musician is encouraged to make the song their own. Over the course of working on the music, we all add our ideas and have a significant impact on the final recording.
AAJ: There have been a few personnel changes over the years; was there ever a time when you thought the band might call it a day?
RF: When Robben Ford left the band I thought it might fold. We started as Robben's band and his departure was a major blow. We took some time off and each of us worked with other people for about a year. I toured with Joni Mitchell, Jimmy with Al Jarreau, and [drummer] Ricky [Lawson] with Stevie Wonder. As fate would have it, our second album, Mirage a Trois (Warner Brothers, 1983) received a Grammy nomination and that jump started the band. We met [saxophonist] Marc Russo and were once again able to put together a cohesive unit.
The second precarious period was 1998 when [drummer] Will Kennedy left the band. At that time we also lost our recording contract and changed manager and booking agency. All of those changes resulted in a period of instability but we rebounded by self-producing Mint Jam (Yellowjackets Ent., 2001) which jump-started everything once again.
AAJ: Time Squared (Heads Up International, 2003) was your first studio album in five years; why was there such a long gap between albums?
RF: As previously mentioned, the period between our last Warner Bros. release in 1998 and Time Squared (Heads Up International, 2003) was very difficult. After losing our Warner's contract, we explored our recording options but there wasn't much interest in the band from traditional record companies.
At that point we decided to self-finance our own recording which turned out to be the smartest thing the band had done at that point. We subsequently entered into a licensing agreement with Heads Up for international release of that recording (Mint Jam) and that relationship has continued to the present.
Yellowjackets (L:R): Jimmy Haslip, Bob Mintzer, Marcus Baylor, Russell Ferrante
AAJ: There was an important shift in personnel when Bob Mintzer joined the band; firstly, how did his joining the band come about, and secondly, how important has his input been to the direction the band took after 1990 and continues to take?
RF: We had known Bob and would occasionally run into him on the road when he was working with [vocalist] Michael Franks. Jimmy suggested Bob for the Greenhouse (GRP, 1991) recording as Jimmy was a huge fan of Bob's work with [bassist] Jaco Pastorius' band. What started as a one-off recording has developed into a sixteen year friendship and working relationship.
Bob commands the respect of everyone who has the good fortune to work with him. He's a musician's musician. He's one of those guys that plays every instrument and can write a symphony on an airplane, pulling the notes from his imagination. His incredible musicianship, along with his writing and arranging skills has had a profound impact on the band.
AAJ: There were a few changes in the position of drum stool before Marcus Baylor joined the band; what does he bring to the mix?
RF: Marcus brings the ability to play free-wheeling jazz as well as more structured, groove-oriented tunes. He's very spontaneous, seemingly never playing the same thing twice, and an exciting performer. He's much younger than the rest of us so he also brings youthful energy and a connection with another generation of musicians.
Additionally, he's a great team player and wise beyond his years. His input in all areas, musical- and business-wise has been extremely valuable.
AAJ: Your musical relationship with Jimmy Haslip goes back thirty years which is a hell of along time; how would you describe your working relationship?
RF: Jimmy is an extraordinary person. He's extremely generous and flexible. These qualities make him a perfect collaborator. We also have complimentary skills and approaches to working together. I tend to be methodical and linear in my approach, giving careful consideration to the rules and conventions. On the other hand, Jimmy throws out all the rules and responds from his gut and intuition. When I'm stuck he can suggest options I may not have considered and when he's in a bind I can offer possibilities he may not be aware of. I honestly can't recall any serious impasse in the thirty years we've worked together. We're able to arrive at consensus and move forward without a lot of angst.
AJ: The other members of the band have full-scale touring/recording projects outside of the Yellowjackets; your own extra-curricula activities are smaller scale and more local. Could you tell us something about your musical activities outside the Yellowjackets?
RF: I teach at two schools in Los Angeles, University of Southern California and Musicians Institute. I regularly play live and write and record with singer, Kevin Lettau. I also work with a variety of people in the capacity of arranger or player for their recording projects, recently having written and recorded with [vocalists] Anita Baker, Al Jarreau, Mindi Abair, Marilyn Scott, Rita Coolidge, Jeff Kashiwa, among others.
AAJ: You've played pretty much all over the world; are there any places you haven't yet played which appeal to you?
RF: We've not yet played in China. We've played in South Africa but not in any other African countries. Those are places I'd love to visit and perform in.
AAJ: Do you have a Yellowjackets album of which you are particularly proud?
RF: As other musicians have said, your recordings are like your children and therefore it's difficult to pick favorites. If prodded however, I would that Four Corners, (MCA, 1987), The Spin, (MCA, 1989) and Greenhouse (GRP, 1991) stand out as particularly creatively satisfying experiences.
AAJ: My own favorite album is Greenhouse. Am I wildly wrong when I say I detect a Gustav Mahler influence on a song like "Greenhouse ?
RF: I haven't listened to a lot of Mahler but it's all in the collective soup so I'm sure that's a fair statement. I was really fond of Barber's "Adagio For Strings and that piece probably influenced the introduction.
AAJ: You've explored, for want of a better term, "world music, most notably on Four Corners (MCA, 1987); are there any specific styles of music that you would like to explore and maybe incorporate into future Yellowjackets albums?
RF: There are so many different folk traditions that it would be hard to pinpoint one. I actually have a lot of interest in early American musical traditions like Steven Foster songs, civil war songs, spirituals etc. that I'd love to further explore.
AAJ: On a personal level, you toured with Joni Mitchell in 1983. What kind of experience was that? How do you rate her as a singer?
RF: The time I spent working with Joni was thoroughly enjoyable. I've always loved her music. She was open to our suggestions about shaping her music and she loved to hang out with the band! Joni is a true artist. She was incredibly tuned in to everything around her. Nothing escaped her powers of observation. She was wholly committed to realizing her artistic vision. It was inspiring and instructive to have spent time with her.
I recently heard a live recording from one of our live shows from London; Joni's singing was amazing! Her phrasing and pitch was stellar. In this age of "computer-assisted vocals, I was reminded of what a truly gifted singer she was.
AAJ: What does 2007 and beyond hold for the Yellowjackets?
RF: I think we're yearning to make a more radical shift. We're setting aside some time this year to brainstorm together and see if we can unearth some seeds that might take us in a new and exciting direction. Wish us luck!
Yellowjackets, Twenty Five (Heads Up International, 2006)
Yellopwjackets, Altered State (Heads Up International, 2005)
Yellowjackets, Peace Round: A Christmas Celebration (Heads Up International, 2003)
Yellowjackets, Time Squared (Heads Up International, 2003)
Yellowjackets, Mint Jam (Yellowjackets Ent., 2001)
Yellowjackets, Best of Yellowjackets (Warner Brothers, 1999)
Yellowjackets, Club Nocturne (Warner Brothers, 1998)
Yellowjackets, Blue Hats (Warner Brothers, 1997)
Yellowjackets, Dreamland (Warner Brothers, 1995)
Yellowjackets, Collection (GRP, 1995)
Yellowjackets, Run for your Life (GRP, 1994)
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 Shades (MCA, 1986)
Yellowjackets Samurai Samba (Waner Brothers, 1985)
Yellowjackets Mirage a Trois (Warner Brothers, 1983)
Yellowjackets Yellowjackets (Warner Brothers, 1981)
Photo of Ferrante: Courtesy of West Valley Jazz
Yellowjackets Photo: Courtesy of Heads Up International