Yellowjackets: Looking Back and Moving Forward
It was 25 years ago this summer that I happened to catch Yellowjackets playing in New York at Seventh Avenue South, a popular nightclub owned by the Brecker Brothers that served as a downtown haven for a bevy of kindred young musicians immersed in the business of melding jazz and funk.
Guitarist Robben Ford, whom the band had essentially been built around, was on stage killing it with stinging, bent-string abandon on the gospel-tinged “Imperial Strut” while keyboardist-composer Russell Ferrante feverishly worked his Fender Rhodes, Detroit drummer Ricky Lawson laid it down with solid, in-the-pocket authority and bassist Jimmy Haslip bore down on his Yamaha electric four-string ax, occasionally reaching over to punctuate the groove with a well-placed thumb-slap statement. I distinctly recall Haslip wearing bell-bottoms on that early Jackets gig while sporting Mork-like suspenders, long black hair and a bushy, black Tony Orlando-style mustache. Hell, I may have been wearing bell-bottoms myself. It was standard issue for the times.
Yellowjackets have since gone through several personnel changes, experienced significant artistic growth and earned a dozen Grammy nominations along the way. And while each successive lineup has brought its own chemistry to bear, the current lineup of charter members Haslip and Ferrante, saxophonist Bob Mintzer (a Jackets member since the early ’90s) and newest member, young drummer Marcus Baylor (who was 3 years old when the band’s self-titled debut was released), is arguably the most versatile and potent edition of the Jackets to date.
On two recent projects — a live CD recorded last October at the New Morning in Paris and a companion DVD recorded 10 days later at the Naima Club in Forli, Italy — this flexible unit tackles material spanning the Yellowjackets’ 25-year history. From the sizzling funk fusion of “Imperial Strut” and “Matinee Idol” on their landmark 1981 debut to Baylor’s expansive, open-ended “Free Day” on 2005’s Altered State, these Jackets straddle the funk-jazz divide with typical aplomb while stretching adventurously on Ferrante’s jubilant, gospel-ish “Revelation” (from 1986’s Shades, reprised on 1992’s Live Wires) and the blistering swinger “Runferyerlife.”
Representing 18 albums spanning 25 years may seem a daunting task.
“It was hard to figure out which tunes to include but we did the best we could knowing which songs fans and musicians always seemed interested in,” Ferrante says. “We tried to include some of that stuff and still have it sound like we sound now. We don’t want it to be like a dinosaur kind of band. We’re still interested in finding new territory and exploring and advancing on our instruments and as a band.”
Staples such as “Revelation,” “My Old School” (from 1993’s Like a River) and ‘Geraldine’ (originally on 1989’s The Spin and reprised on Live Wires) have remained in the Jackets’ repertoire over the years.
“We have been playing those songs pretty consistently,” says Ferrante. “In fact, ‘Revelation’ is generally our encore number. Even though it’s pretty straight down the pike it’s still fun to play and it does feel great to really connect with the audience, to give them something that they really enjoy. ‘Geraldine’ is like that as well. That’s still a great tune to play and trying to just lose yourself in the song and in the moment is always really soul satisfying.
Given their appeal to longtime fans, these Yellowjackets are also mindful of pushing the envelope. “We’re always trying to balance the familiar and those things that really feel good and create a warm feeling in listeners with those things that will challenge us and invigorate us artistically,” says Ferrante. “They may not be the audience’s favorite thing but for a band to stay vital you have to explore those areas as well.”
Baylor’s “Free Day,” a freewheeling piece full of risk-taking, captures that quality on the new retrospective collection. As Haslip explains, “This was an unusual piece of music for the band. We had a very nice recording of it on Altered State, our last record, but when we started playing it live it really opened up to some other places.”
“Greenhouse,” the title track of the Jackets’ 1991 album, was originally recorded with a 28-piece orchestra arranged and conducted by Vince Mendoza. On the Paris concert CD the band handles it as a stripped-down quartet piece, with synth filling in for the orchestra. “Over the years we’ve been performing that piece with just a quartet,” says Ferrante. “It’s one of the pinnacle pieces of the band in that it was one of the first things that we recorded with Bob Mintzer.”
A key to the Jackets’ longevity has been a willingness to bring in new energy and ideas. As opposed to an ironclad Buddy Rich-style dictatorship, charter members Ferrante and Haslip have always run the Jackets like a democracy. Mintzer, an acclaimed saxophonist and big band leader in his own right, says he was immediately impressed by the band’s inclusiveness after officially joining in 1992. “It’s a group where everyone has an equal say of what goes on, which is pretty rare nowadays. But Jim and Russ are some of the most generous, gracious people I’ve ever met.”
“It really is a democracy,” Ferrante says. “Somehow we manage to arrive at collective decisions without really butting heads. People have different opinions but we’ve always found a way to reach a consensus without people’s feelings getting too bruised. That’s kind of been the hallmark of the band.”
Adds Haslip, “Most bands that go through personnel changes may try to steer the newer members to emulate what’s already been pre-ordained, so to speak. But with our band, we’ve opened the door to any new members that would come in, to include them in any kind of change of direction or even change in the overall sound of the group. So in a sense, each new member coming in is almost like a little fountain of youth for the band.”
Baylor, a St. Louis native who joined the band in 2000, is providing the latest shot of youth for the group. “The cool thing about the Yellowjackets is that you bring in an idea and when they get finished with it, it really sounds like something. We’re constantly juggling one another’s tunes like that, with everybody adding in their own thing as a piece develops. It’s a process that we like to call ‘Jacket-izing.’”
On Twenty-Five’s CD, elder Ferrante and young blood Baylor exhibit a special bond on two gospel-drenched numbers, “Sea Folk” (from 2003’s Time Squared, the Jackets’ debut on Heads Up) and the rousing, uplifting “Revelation” (originally sung by the Perry sisters on Shades and by Take 6 on Live Wires).
“Marcus and I share that Pentecostal background because I grew up in San Jose in a similar kind of church that he grew up in, although our church wasn’t a black gospel church,” Ferrante says. And definitely the sentiment in the music and the hymns had an emotional content that helped me make that connection with some sort of deep spiritual feeling...reaching a deep part of yourself.”
Baylor grew up playing music in a Pentecostal Apostolic church where his father was the pastor. The drummer’s first engagement with the Jackets was a clinic held at the Berklee College of Music, followed by two nights at Scullers Jazz Club nightclub in Boston. “I had never met the Yellowjackets before and had never even seen any live video footage or anything, but I had heard their records,” he recalls. “Because I come from a strict Pentecostal upbringing, jazz music wasn’t always allowed in the house. But I would sneak in some Yellowjackets albums because they did some gospel-sounding stuff, which I definitely could relate to.”
Baylor impressed his bandmates at the Berklee workshop and won over Jackets fans at subsequent Scullers gigs. “The fans were great, they were rooting me on,” he recalls. “I had all this sheet music up there on the stage, but things really worked out, and I’ve been there ever since.” He adds, “One thing about the Yellowjackets is that from day one they always really made me feel a part of the band. It never was an isolation thing or the new guy who was just coming in to make a couple of gigs. I always felt like I was part of this band.”
Baylor’s entry into the group followed a yearlong period of revolving drummers. When Will Kennedy left the Jackets following 1998’s Club Nocturne, he was replaced by former Weather Reporter Peter Erskine, who toured with the band through 1999. Erskine was followed by a succession of stellar drummers including Teri Lynne Carrington, Greg Hutchinson, Alex Acuña, Vinnie Colaiuta and Jonathan Joseph, each of whom kept the Jackets drum chair warm until Baylor arrived at the end of 2000.
The origins of the Yellowjackets go back to 1977 when Ferrante, Haslip and Lawson served as the backup band for guitarist Robben Ford’s solo debut, The Inside Story. As Lawson recalls, “I knew Jimmy, Jimmy knew Robben and Robben knew Russell. Me and Jimmy had worked together with Flora Purim and Airto, which is where we met. I had also just come from playing with Roy Ayers and with the Brothers Johnson, so we put together this thing with Robben, as his backup band; just a four piece. And man, we had a ball.”
Shortly after that Ford release on the Elektra label, a separate demo tape that the crew had cut grabbed the attention of Warner Bros. honcho Tommy LiPuma, who promptly signed them to the label. It was producer LiPuma, in fact, who actually chose the name of the group. “We found ourselves in the studio without a name and we didn’t want something like the L.A. Jazz Quartet,” explains Haslip. “So we wrote down names and Tommy liked Yellowjackets. He felt it had an interesting vibe. Warner Bros. got a graphic designer to make us a heavy metal-like emblem of a yellowjacket bee on a shield and that was it.”
An in-demand L.A. session man who had worked in the studio with Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and others, Ferrante brought a jazzy sensibility to the band while also coloring the music with gospel piano flourishes and subtle synth layering in the arrangements. And while the visceral appeal of Ford’s burning guitar work may have predominated, it is Ferrante’s orchestration skills that helped shape the band’s signature sound on its debut.
Ford previously met Ferrante in 1973 when they played together in Jimmy Witherspoon’s blues band. He later appeared on the Jackets’ follow-up, 1983’s Mirage à Trois, before leaving the group to pursue a solo career. “Robben was a really big part of the band,” says Ferrante in retrospect. “He was such a strong voice. And quite frankly, when he left I didn’t know what we were going to do.”
In 1983, alto saxophonist Marc Russo stepped in as Ford’s replacement, bringing his biting tone and funky swagger. Russo first recorded with the Jackets on the group’s third outing, 1985’s Samurai Samba (Warner Bros.). A former member of the Tower of Power horn section who was also gigging with Huey Lewis and Kenny Loggins, he subsequently played on 1986’s Shades, 1987’s Four Corners, 1988’s Politics and 1989’s The Spin (all on MCA) before leaving in 1991. Mintzer appeared as a special guest on 1991’s Greenhouse before officially joining the band the following year for its Live Wires tour.
Ricky Lawson, who played on the Jackets’ first four recordings, was the resident groovemeister of the original group. As he put it, “Russell and the rest of the cats would come up with all the ethereal stuff. But if you’re trying to make it accessible to a non-musician, you gotta give ’em something that they can hold on to. That was my whole job in the band.”
Saxophonist Russo, who currently tours with the Doobie Brothers and is also a member of Bay Area band Sons of Champlin, remembers a gradual shift in the band’s direction during his tenure. “At the time I joined, they were not even sure that they were going to continue the band. They were coming off of the first Yellowjackets record and the second one, Mirage à Trois, and I believe they had another record that they were obligated to do. Back then people were calling it ‘fusion’ although the music was more R&B driven at that time, especially with Ricky Lawson playing drums. So there was definitely more of a funk element in the band when I joined. And for me, the real noticeable shift came after Ricky left the band and we got Will Kennedy on drums. At that point, they really wanted to go into more of a straight ahead or swing/jazz direction.”
Lawson, who played a rare reunion concert with his original Yellowjackets band mates in 2002, also acknowledges a distinct shift for the band in recent years. “It’s kind of grown more ethereal now, which is still cool,” he says. “They’ve moved on to some other stuff and created their own environment. And I support what the band is doing now musically because I think the young players need to hear that stuff. These guys are raising the bar while the rest of the industry is lowering the bar.”
A key factor in the band’s gradual move toward a jazzier sound has been Haslip’s development as an electric bassist who emulates a more subdued, warm-toned, walking aesthetic of upright players rather than the brighter, treble-toned attack of ’80s-style electric slap bass players. “Over the years I’ve experimented a lot with getting more of a string bass type of sound on the electric by playing further up on the neck as opposed to playing back by the bridge,” he says.
Meanwhile, Ferrante has come back to playing acoustic piano as his main instrument. “I still use the synths for orchestration to add a little dimension and color, but I don’t often solo on a synth or use it as the main sound in a tune,” he explains.
With the release of [Twenty-Five], Ferrante is now able to take in the band’s illustrious history while also looking ahead to its future. “It’s an interesting thing for us to reflect back on the many years and the way things have unfolded,” he says. “This band is a pretty low-stress, low-drama environment. Maybe some people would argue that some angst can really kind of make for some interesting music, and I think that’s probably true to some degree. But it’s also hard to sustain that for a long time.”
Jimmy Haslip plays a custom-made six-string electric made by luthier Keith Roscoe of Greensboro, N.C. “I feel really comfortable soloing on that instrument because it’s very articulate above the 12th fret,” he says. “And down into the bottom in the first five frets it has a really great low end. I have separate volume controls, and there’s a three-band equalizer where I can change mid range, treble and bass on the instrument. That instrument allows me to really express myself in a lot of different ways. When I go out to play live, it’s nice to have an instrument that can maybe cover three or four areas of coloration for the band, all on one instrument.” Haslip uses D’Addario Prism strings, SWR amplifiers and a Line 6 ToneCore Space Chorus pedal.
Russell Ferrante plays a Korg Triton synthesizer, which he requests for all the Yellowjackets gigs. “I bring a card that has my sounds and MIDI setups, and I MIDI the Triton to a G4 laptop, which has a virtual synth in it. And there’s like three or four sounds that I really like that are in that laptop that I’ve actually brought in from an old Roland S760 sampler that I had. It had a really nice string sound, which I use on ‘Greenhouse,’ and also a nice voice patch.” He has a Steinway L grand piano at home and played a YamahaC7 grand piano for the Twenty-Five recording.
Bob Mintzer plays the same Selmer Mark IV tenor sax that he has had for the past 11 years. For the tenor sax he uses a Freddie Gregory 7* ebonite mouthpiece, an Olegature ligature with Oleg key modifications and a Van Doren V16 3 1?2 reed. He also plays a Selmer Mark 5 soprano saxophone with a Bari #82 mouthpiece, Olegature ligature with Oleg key modifications and a Bari plastic soprano sax reed (hard). His Selmer bass clarinet (low E-flat) is from the 1960s, and he also plays an Akai EWI 1000/2000.
Marcus Baylor endorses Yamaha drums, Pro-Mark sticks, Remo drum heads and Sabian cymbals. He plays a Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute kit with a 6 1/2 x 14-inch wood snare with hoops, a David Garibaldi Signature Series 10 x 4-inch piccolo snare, 10 x 7 1/2-inch tom, 12 x 8-inch tom, 14 x 14-inch floor tom, 20 x 14-inch kick drum. His Sabian cymbals include 14-inch HHX Groove hi-hats, 16-inch Duo Crash, 22-inch HH Raw Dry ride, 18-inch AA Rocktagon and 16-inch HHX Evolution O-Zone crash cymbal. He uses Remo Coated Ambassador heads on his toms, Remo Coated Powerstroke 3 on his snares and Remo Clear Power stroke 3 on his bass drum. He also plays Pro-Mark Maple SD-9 wood tip sticks.
Originally published in June 2006