One of the most popular contemporary jazz ensembles of the 1980s and 1990s, the Grammy Award-winning Yellowjackets have never fit neatly into a single category. Their blend of jazz and funk often invites comparisons to such bands as Spyro Gyra or “smooth jazz” artists. They continue to evolve, folding world music into their repertoire and welcoming new approaches as their lineup changes. During their 20 years in the music business the Yellowjackets sometimes grew at the expense of their popularity, yet this awarded them greater credibility among serious jazz enthusiasts and critics.
The Yellowjackets’ longevity can be traced to the talent and enthusiasm of keyboardist Russell Ferrante and bassist Jimmy Haslip (both original members), saxophonist and clarinetist Bob Mintzer, and the band’s newest member, drummer Marcus Baylor. “We try to avoid the cliches you’ve heard recycled time after time, whether in jazz or pop or whatever,” Ferrante explained to Los Angeles Times contributor Zan Stewart. “When I say that I always feel like I’m trying to… defend us, but fortunately we have the respect of a lot of musicians.”
Born into a family of music lovers, Ferrante seemed destined to pursue a musical career. He was first
Members include Marcus Baylor (joined group, 2000), drums; Russell Ferrante, keyboards, synthesizers; Jimmy Haslip, bass; Ricky Lawson (left group, 1986), drums; William Kennedy (group member, 1986-99), drums; Bob Mintzer (joined group, 1991), tenor and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Marc Russo (group member, 1984-89), alto and soprano saxophone.
Yellowjackets emerged from the Robben Ford Group, 1977-78; released self-titled debut, 1981; released Shades, 1986; released the looser, jazzier Four Corners, 1987; experimented with acoustic jazz for Politics, 1988; released the adventurous Greenhouse, 1991. released Live Wires and Like a River, 1992; released Run for Your Life, 1994; released crossover album Club Nocturne, 1998; self-released Mint Jam, 2001.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best R&B Instrumental Performance for “And You Know That,” 1986; Grammy Award, Best Jazz Fusion Performance for Politics, 1988.
Addresses: Management —Vision Management, 7958 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048, phone: (323) 658-8744, e-mail: [email protected]. Website— Yellowjackets Official Website: http://www.yellowjackets.com.
exposed to music in church, where his father, a frequent soloist and member of a gospel quartet, served as choir director. Unlike several of his brothers and sisters, Ferrante claims he did not inherit his father’s gift for singing. Thus he took piano lessons from the age of nine until 16, expecting one day to become a church pianist. Along the way, he also developed an interest in other instruments, especially the drums. His percussion skills eventually earned him a few local gigs and some session work; Ferrante believes that studying the drums greatly benefited his work as a keyboardist and composer.
Around the age of 15, Ferrante discovered jazz and pop, learning the styles from whatever sources he could find. While he never studied formally, he took scattered lessons from local jazz musicians, pored over jazz theory books, and listened to recordings from which he transcribed songs and solos. One of the first records that intrigued him was Swiss Movement by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, a combination of jazz, R&B, and gospel. He also drew inspiration from the album My Favorite Things by John Coltrane, as well as several recordings by Miles Davis; his favorite pop artists included the Beatles and Joni Mitchell.
Like Ferrante, Jimmy Haslip, too, came from a rich musical background. Latin and salsa music played regularly in his family’s home—records by such icons as Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Baretto, Celia Cruz, and others. From his parents, Haslip learned various Latin dances, as well as how to play basic Latin rhythms on percussion instruments such as the claves, maracas, cowbell, bongos, and the guido. He was introduced to jazz and classical music by his older brother, Gabriel, listening to records by the likes of Coltrane, Davis, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, and Dave Brubeck alongside works by composers such as Debussy, Beethoven, Mozart, and Mahler. Also drawn to pop musicians, Haslip enjoyed listening to the Beatles, the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown.
From age seven through 14 Haslip studied the trumpet and other brass instruments, including the bugle, baritone horn, and tuba. At 15 he decided that he wanted to learn the electric bass. Although mostly self-taught, Haslip took some private instruction from Ron Smith in the 1970s, a bass and tuba player from New York, and studied briefly with Jaco Pastoius of Weather Report. Haslip claims many significant artistic influences—from Paul McCartney to Thelonius Monk to Nicolas Slominski. But he found his true driving force in guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, “the sole inspiration for me playing music as a profession,” stated Haslip for the Yellowjackets official website. “Seeing him perform live was awesome and it lit a fire within me, which eventually gave me the drive to pursue music as a career.”
Haslip got his chance for a musical career in 1977 when he joined guitarist Robben Ford’s group. The band also included Ferrante and Ricky Lawson, a drummer born in Detroit, Michigan, who, since turning professional at age 16, had sat in with the likes of Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five, Paul McCartney, and George Benson. Together, they recorded Inside Story, a mostly instrumental album. Unfortunately, the record label wanted him to record more pop-oriented, vocal material, while Ford and his backing band were interested in purely instrumental music. Together they recorded demo tapes that ultimately earned them a contract with Warner Bros. Records. The Yellowjackets were born; Ford, the ensemble’s founder (though not necessarily a full-time member), guested on the group’s first two albums.
The band’s 1981 self-titled debut and its 1983 followup, Mirage á Trois, introduced the world to their early sound—a meld of jazz, fusion, R&B, and rock. Following a hiatus to pursue other interests, the Yellowjacket resurfaced in 1984 to play at the Playboy Jazz Festival with guest percussionist Paulinho Da Costa and a new member, alto and soprano saxophonist Marc Russo. A native of San Francisco, California, and former member of the Tower of Power’s horn section, Russo provided the Yellowjackets with a distinctive voice. Both he and Da Costa were part of the group’s third album, 1985’s Samurai Samba, which featured the well-known “Homecoming.” The lineup remained intact for Shades, released the following year on MCA Records. This album contained “And You Know That,” which won a Grammy Award in 1986 for Best R&B Instrumental Performance.
That same year, Lawson left the Yellowjackets to join Lionel Richie’s touring band. His replacement, William Kennedy, added a new dimension to the group’s sound with his polyrhythmic drumming technique. Their music became looser, more improvisational, with the inclusion of African rhythms and world beat elements; the 1987 album Four Corners, with tracks such as “Wildlife” and “Sightseeing,” showed the Yellowjackets’ considerably greater musical complexity.
The Yellowjackets’ sound took another turn in 1988 with the album Politics, which won a Grammy Award that year for Best Jazz Fusion Performance. On several tracks, the band opted for an acoustic, rather than electronic, presentation, and an overall relaxed mood. This approach foreshadowed 1989’s The Spin, an acoustic album in which synthesizers were used less and each composition allowed more space in which to improvise—exemplified best by “Geraldine” and “Storytellers.” Many cite Russo’s performance on the title track as one of his finest. However, he decided to leave the group to further his studio and solo career soon after The Spin’s release.
With Russo’s departure, the Yellowjackets pushed forward as a trio, moving to a new label, GRP, and releasing Greenhouse in 1991. Considered one of the group’s most adventurous albums, it featured a guest appearance on tenor and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, and alto flute by well-known big band leader and arranger Bob Mintzer. Following the album’s release, Mintzer became a full member of the Yellowjackets although he continued to write and arrange music for his Bob Mintzer Big Band and perform with the New York Philharmonic. A reserved and thoughtful player, “Mintzer is one of the rare woodwind artists who can make the electronic wind instrument into an expressive voice—one that supercedes its inherent synthesizer qualities,” commented Don Heckman in the Los Angeles Times.
A native of New Rochelle, New York, Mintzer first earned to play by ear; he later studied clarinet and saxophone after visiting jazz clubs and listening to records as a youth. During his senior year of high school he attended the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, after deciding that he wanted to pursue music in earnest. Thereafter, he began composing, arranging, performing, and gathering musicians to record demo tapes. Early in his career Mintzer landed gigs with Eumir Deodato and Tito Puente, and arranged music for Buddy Rich’s band.
Although these experiences proved beneficial, he considers his six-month stint at the Village Vanguard with the Thad Jones and the Mel Lewis Big Band as the most stimulating. “It was a determining factor on th. way I run my own band, the way I like to play and the way I write….” he stated in comments included on the Yellowjackets official website. “Thad had a big impact on my writing.” However, big band music was not Mintzer’s only source of inspiration. In his recordings one hears elements of rock, Latin, and fusion mixed with big band jazz. He also admires the spontaneous nature of artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea.
With Mintzer at the helm the Yellowjackets released Live Wires, recorded live in concert at the Roxy in Los Angeles in 1992. Illustrating their growing interest in straight-ahead acoustic jazz, they followed with Like a River in 1992 and Run for Your Life in 1994. Both albums strengthened the Yellowjackets’ evolving reputation as a serious and legitimate jazz ensemble. In 1995, returning to their original label Warner Bros., they released a mellow, relaxed set called Dreamland. Next came a crossover album, 1998’s Club Nocturne, featuring guest vocals by Kurt Elling, Jonathan Butler, and Brenda Russell. Priceless Jazz, a collection of tracks from the group’s MCA and GRP recordings was also issued that year. A compilation album of Warner Brothers material, The Best of the Yellowjackets, appeared in 1999, featuring guest performances by Bobby McFerrin, Ernie Watts, Paulinho Da Costa, Chuck Findley, Luis Conte, Lenny Castro, Jerry Hey, and Kurt Elling.
Early in 1999, the Yellowjackets suffered yet another lineup change when Kennedy departed to pursue gospel music and producing. Peter Erskine stepped in for the remainder of the year, but because of conflicting schedules, he decided not to remain. After performing with different drummers—including Marcus Baylor and Terri Lyne Carrington—throughout much of 2000, the group ultimately enlisted Baylor to fill the opening permanently. Meanwhile, when negotiations with Warner Bros, failed in a contract renewal, the group decided to issue the next Yellowjackets set independently. Released in November of 2001 on Yellowjackets Enterprises, Mint Jam, recorded live at the Mint in Los Angeles, featured several new compositions, as well as new performances of concert favorites.
Yellowjackets, Warner Bros., 1981.
Mirage à Trois, Warner Bros., 1983.
Samurai Samba, Warner Bros., 1985.
Shades, MCA, 1986.
Four Corners, MCA, 1987.
Politics, MCA, 1988.
The Spin, MCA, 1989.
Greenhouse, GRP, 1991.
Like a River, GRP, 1992.
Live Wires, GRP, 1992.
Run for Your Life, GRP, 1994.
Dreamland, Warner Bros., 1995.
Blue Hats, Warner Bros., 1997.
Club Nocturne, Warner Bros., 1998.
Priceless Jazz, UNI/GRP, 1998.
The Best of the Yellowjackets, Warner Bros., 1999.
Mint Jam, Yellowjackets Enterprises, 2001.
Swenson, John, editor, Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.
Billboard, March 1, 1997.
Down Beat, February 1993; April 1999; May 1999.
Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1988; November 15, 1989; August 3, 1990; August 6, 1990; November 2, 1990; July 18, 1992; January 17, 1993; February 26, 1995; February 1, 1996; March 14, 1997; November 21, 1998; January 6, 1999; February 21, 1999; January 7, 2001; July 20, 2001.
Washington Post, June 14, 1990.
Yellowjackets Official Website, http://www.yellowjackets.com (December 7, 2001).
yel·low jack·et • n. inf. a wasp or hornet with bright yellow markings.