Yellowjackets - "Close to the base"
The "Yellow Jackets" do exist continuously for more than two decades now. Their fans, however, had to survive the last four years without a new album out. Now finally their new double live-CD "Mint Jam" - published on the new label "Heads Up" - shows the current position of the Jackets: Fusion rock at its best - in no way old-fashioned, more fresh and alive than ever ...
Russ Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip talk to Carina Prange about the past and present and about keeping the spirit alive.
Carina: The Yellowjackets do exist for 23 years now - what is your "recipe" to keep a group going over such a long time? Is it because you are playing in different side projects as well?
Jimmy: Well, working on side projects can always help to some extent. It keeps the "creative juices flowing" on many levels and as we possess a very open and relaxed attitude about working towards creating music as our bottom line, we will always learn something from our experiences with other projects as well as with the Yellowjackets.
We have always supported doing outside projects in the name of seeking knowledge and not only sharing it with the Yellowjackets ensemble and the projects at hand, but also with other artists and band projects outside of the our Yellowjackets commitment.
Russ: I think our recipe is a love of music, a real camaraderie on and off the bandstand, a very democratic and respectful way of working together, and a recognition that we're very privileged to be able to record and perform our own music with the caliber of musicians we've had the good fortune to play with these past 23 plus years.
I think it helps that each of us is free to pursue opportunities outside the activities of Yellowjackets. Often times these "outside" projects result in additional work for one or sometimes all of the other band members.
Carina: Fourteen purely instrumental albums - one album with vocals: is this a direction you can imagine to explore again in the future? Or do you have a reason not to?
Jimmy: Actually, with the Club Nocturne recording, we had some higher expectations in that we wanted to record a CD with all vocal tracks. We managed to record with Brenda Russell "Paris Rain", Kurt Elling "Up From New Orleans" and "All is Quiet" and a bonus track for the Japanese release only - a marketing idea form the Warners staff - with Gino Vannelli "Living Inside Myself".
We really had a grander scheme in mind, but were pressured by Warner Bros. and management to abandon this ambition. I was happy with the results on this recording, but now in the back of my mind, hold on to the thought of possibly trying to coordinate a similar project for the future. We enjoy working with singers and I am sure we will revisit this direction again.
Russ: One reason not to pursue recording more vocals is that the band is known primarily as an instrumental group. Many of our fans actually get upset when we include vocals! Also, none of us really sings well enough to pull that off live. It's not really our forte. We do love to arrange and write for talented singers and through the years have done so for Take Six, Bobby McFerrin, Chaka Khan, Al Jarreau, Michael Franks, Kurt Elling, Brenda Russell, Gino Vanelli and many more.
Carina: Bob Mintzer is a member of the band for 12 years now - how does he influence the sound of the band? He is known as a great arranger - is that his role with the Yellowjackets also?
Russ: Bob is truly the "musician's musician". I'm constantly amazed and inspired by his talent and work ethic! He brings a deep jazz sensibility and incredible improvisational voice to the band. It goes without saying that he brings a strong compositional component to the band but he's also very open to our interpretation of his ideas. He's fond of saying that the band "Jacketizes" his tunes.
When Bob joined the band, we already had a strong identity. He was sensitive to that and made an effort to really understand our strengths and style before he began writing in earnest for us. Finally and as important as anything else, Bob brings a great strength of character and maturity to the band. He has a wealth of skill, creativity, and experience and is solid as a rock!
Carina: There is a kind of fusion-revival visible now - does this put you more on the "commercial side" without the need to change your music? Do you see an increase in fan response, record sales - or is there always the same "great fan-base"?
Jimmy: We have a very loyal fan base around the world and though record sales have decreased over the years, we feel that there is new potential with the younger generation enjoying Jam bands and Acid Jazz. Those types of things will eventually bring us new fans to add to our existing loyal following.
We are comfortable now with what we have accomplished and what we will accomplish in the future and know that there are many people looking for this type of music and will find us. We are still very active in touring all over the world and recording new music as in "Mint Jam".
Our concept has always been of perseverance and we also possess quite a long history ... - This all falls in our favor in the long run. And we have delved in the commercial world from time to time, as many of our predecessors and current peers have, we certainly don't consider ourselves a pop band!
Many critics have chosen us as such and I beg to differ with their opinion of us. We are strictly experimental and happen to approach music with a serious melodic sense. I believe that most, who misunderstand or refuse to accept the truth in this matter, do so under some sort of prejudice towards change and experimentation.
Carina: "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." This can be seen both as a description or as a plan. Who of you did define it as the "philosophy" of the Yellowjackets?
Jimmy: It's basically the old adage: "two heads are better than one" and in the Yellowjackets case it's "Four heads are better than one"! This allows for a stronger statement and a unity of sorts to take place within a project and it becomes more than just an individual taking control, but rather group of individuals all moving in one direction as one! I see that as a very positive way to get the most out of a recording and touring unit like the Yellowjackets with some serious motivational presence.
Yellowjackets - "Mint Jam"
Carina: "Mint Jam" is a live-album. Will there be another studio-album coming soon? Or would you say that the present music of the Yellowjackets is one that must played and recorded live?
Russ: We'd love to do another studio recording and hopefully will be able to soon. "Mint Jam" worked well as a live recording because the new material had been worked out on the bandstand over the previous year or two. We didn't intend for so much time to lapse between recordings but when our WB deal expired, we were not sure what to do.
After waiting for various people to secure us another recording opportunity and having nothing to show after three years, we decided to take matters into our own hands. All this to say that the music on "Mint Jam" had been incubating for an unusually long time and was ready to burst forth on a live recording!
Carina: When did the contact to "Heads Up" begin? Why did you separate from Warner Bros. in the first place?
Jimmy: We have felt that the larger record companies are only passionate about money and not art. We have problems with that way of thinking and apparently they have problems with the way we think about our music and how it should be presented.
I think the music business has gotten very cold and calculated and has forgotten the true meaning of artist freedom and the deeper communication between the art form and the listener. It is only focused on how much money it will generate and that's were we find ourselves now. Attached to a money making machine that has no conscience and would sell the most distasteful product in the name of making as much money as possible.
Russ: We'd been in contact with "Heads Up" off and on since sometime in 2000 when our WB contract ended - or shall I say, our option was "not renewed". I have to assume WB no longer felt the band was a commercially viable entity.
For several years it's been a difficult time in the US for music that doesn't fit neatly into the existing formats. Yellowjacket´s music is not smooth jazz nor is it exclusively acoustic or straight ahead jazz. Fortunately the fans don't really care what you call it. If it's real and groovin', they respond!
Carina: The three of you, Russ, Jimmy and Bob, come from very different musical backgrounds - did that go together easily? How would you, Russ, define your individual background?
Russ: I grew up taking classical piano lessons and hearing lots of church music as my dad was the choir director. At about age 15, I got interested in pop and jazz music and became obsessed to learn as much as I could about it.
My earliest professional musical experience came playing R&B gigs with dance bands in the San Francisco bay area. At the same time I was transcribing tunes and jazz solos by Coltrane, Miles, Keith Jarrett, etc. - Throw it all in a pot and this is what came out!
Carina: Jimmy, you played percussion as a child and youngster - from age seven to fourteen you played brass instruments. Is it that what makes your bassplaying different?
Jimmy: Well I am sure that any other influences along the way to becoming a balanced musician has some effect on your style and your voice on any particular instrument. Yes, I think learning to play percussion instruments and understanding certain basic polyrhythmic patterns at a young age helped in building a foundation for my playing today, as well as experiencing the playing of trumpet, baritone horn, tenor horn, tuba and bugle opened me up to other sounds and melodic expression, which would be considered building blocks for my musicality today.
Also the fact that I am a self taught bass player with unconventional technique, because of it has to make a difference in how I view the instrument and play it today. There are many technical factors in how and why I play the way I do now, but there are also many personal experiences as a person that would be also responsible for making me play the way I do.
This is a very complex process and all these things have contributed in one way or another, with really, no rhyme or reason. It's all part of a giant scheme and I am the channel for all that has happened in the last fifty years of my life and hope to reflect that through the language of music on an instrument that I chose to play and continue to try to perfect in the form of practice and living my life!
Carina: Interaction with the audience, staying in contact with your fans via the Internet ... - how much importance does that have nowadays?
Russ: "Mint Jam" would not have happened without the support of our fans and of course the Internet has given us a more immediate connection with them. We do our best to be responsive to all requests and inquiries. I receive requests for and send Yellowjacket charts to musicians all over the world. Our music does not solely exist for, nor does it belong to, ourselves. It's richest and most satisfying when it's a conversation between everyone, the band members, the audience and our fans everywhere.
The interview was first published in German language in "Jazzpodium", iss. 7/8 2002
Yellowjackets im Internet: www.yellowjackets.com