With their latest CD out and a busy schedule of live gigs lined up in the US, England, Poland, and Italy this summer, Yellowjackets, show no sign of slowing down. Why would they? Audiences everywhere flock to enjoy their innovative mix of styles and sounds, played by top class musicians.
Enjoying a long shelf life is not unusual for all kinds of bands these days. Mention a few well-known names and chances are the band (possibly with a few new members on board) is still touring and playing live to an audience of enthusiastic fans who grew up with their music. In that respect, as impressive as Yellowjackets’ 35-year career is, there are other bands at least as old, if not older. What makes them different, however, is that, whereas a lot of veteran bands are still making a good living by playing old and much-loved hits and numbers from their back catalogue, Yellowjackets are a forward-looking creative force who continue to find new ways to express themselves musically. Not content to trade on past glories, they explore new ground like the jazz innovators they are.
Cohearance, their latest CD, was released in April 2016. It’s a collection of work they first played live at Ronnie Scott’s in the summer of 2015 before heading into the recording studio. As a result, all the tracks are highly polished while retaining an edginess, freshness and energy.
The composition of the band has changed a number of times over the years, with Australian bassist Dane Alderson the newest member. The other members are Russell Ferrante (founding member) on keyboard, Bob Mintzer on sax, and Will Kennedy on drums. Yellowjackets have released more than 20 albums and CDs, many of which have been nominated for or received Grammy Awards, and their career has gone down many different roads on musical journeys, from jazz fusion through to R&B. Their defining characteristic is to always try and move forward, seeking new directions.
Early days, choosing a name
Yellowjackets was formed in 1977 when session musicians, keyboard player Russell Ferrante, bassist Jimmy Haslip, and drummer Ricky Lawson, were working on an album for Robben Ford. The three found they had a certain chemistry and musical affinity which would lead in time to the release of two albums, Yellowjackets and Mirage A Trois, both of which earned them acclaimed reviews. They went their separate ways for a while but re-formed in 1984 for the Playboy Jazz Festival, a landmark gig for the band (which now included percussionist Paulinho Da Costa and Marc Russo on sax) and the start of a musical journey that would see them exploring world beats and, in their own words, “densely-populated soundscapes”.
When it came to choosing a name for the band, Russell Ferrante says there was nothing deep or meaningful in the one they finally settled on. Jimmy Haslip came up with a list of potential names – most of them awful, admits Ferrante – one of which was Yellowjackets. The name suggested something lively and energetic with a bit of a sting in the tail and seemed to chime with what they were about. You could say that names tend to stick, but all these years later, those connotations of energy and liveliness in the name are just as valid.
Signs of maturity
Three more albums quickly followed: Samurai Samba, Four Corners, and CloudjacketsPolitics, and the group started to shed some of their electronic elements while exploring a more acoustic sound to produce an exciting form of acoustic jazz. This period also heralded the arrival of Bob Mintzer, an established big band arranger and well-known saxophonist. Mintzer would eventually join Yellowjackets and contribute to their evolution into playing straight ahead acoustic jazz over the course of three more albums.
The band had lost none of its original energy and in fact was in the thick of a highly creative spell, recording and performing like never before. By 1995 they’d returned to their first record label, Warner Brothers, and produced one of their most relaxed albums to date, Club Nocturne, a chilled mix of fusion and acoustic jazz.
It’s a truism that the life of a band rarely runs smoothly and Yellowjackets would find themselves without a record label, despite all the success they’d enjoyed over the previous decade. But, as is so often the case, adversity would lead to triumph and with the self-released album Mint Jam in 2001, Yellowjackets not only took control of their own destiny but won over a huge number of new fans. The double CD comprises a live set that features a combination of new and reworked material recorded at the LA club, the Mint. The band was back to its best, mixing it up with inspired solos and musicianship that brimmed with energy.
The journey continues
In a way, their 2015 CD, Cohearence, is a neat summation of the band’s enduring connectedness and camaraderie, regardless of the ups and downs in a long career. All the hallmark sounds are there: the well-sculpted fusion, some funk, even a stately reworking of an American folk classic, Shenandoah, with the instrumentation and execution rendered by musicians who are masters of their craft. Nothing is certain in this life, but it’s a safe bet that Cohearence will not be Yellowjackets’ last CD.
Meanwhile, going by their busy summer schedule, the band shows no sign of slowing down on performing live at jazz clubs, festivals, and other venues around the world. Yellowjackets performed again at Ronnie Scott’s in London (two nights in July 2016) where they went down a storm with jazz cognoscenti and newcomers alike.