By Ralph Burnett
"We're not Kenny G...but not everybody likes Picasso either," states Yellowjacket wind-master Bob Mintzer. "A band of this stature typically plays a more excessive and commercial kind of music--and this band does not do that. This band will take some very unexpected turns and throw surprises and some more sophisticated devices into the music. That makes a listener have to think a little bit harder and perhaps this will provoke some deeper thoughts in the listener. But in doing that you run the risk of people having a question mark over their head because a lot of society want to sit back and be done, you know: Entertain me...dancing girls! And we're not about that. I mean I like to entertain people and I think there is a certain commerciality to the Yellowjackets, but in there is a real consideration for the aesthetic of the art and the music. We really sort of make a point of being sure that we're being honest in this music; when it's conceived, and when it's assembled, and performed. We want to be sure we're not getting up and saying something that isn't what we mean. And I think that's very important." And through the last 12 albums, the Yellowjackets seem to have perfected that balance between current popularity and lasting art, having garnered nominations for eight Grammys and taken home two. "They've all been pleasant surprises," states Yellowjacket founding bassist, Jimmy Haslip. "Although we do have a little joke we say every once in awhile if somebody makes a really silly production: Like I'll say, this needs a little bell right here on 'three-and', and we'll put it on there and someone will say...'that's the Grammy!'"
It's been fifteen years since the Yellowjackets formed from meeting in Robben Ford's band, and since their self-titled debut record, the Yellowjackets have set the standard and been the pace setters in contemporary jazz. "I think we're getting better," states reserved yet opinionated keyboardist Russell Ferrante about the band's evolution. "Jimmy and I were putting together a DAT tape this week for purposes of soliciting some film score work, so we were reviewing all of our CD's and it was really interesting to do that. I don't know how most people who make records deal with this, but I hardly ever listen to that music, especially the early stuff. Hopefully, the more you do something, you gain more skill and you refine your talents. There's a lot of nice music we've recorded in the past. I think it's getting more mature though, it's moving away from the real aggressive stuff, it has a few more rounded edges -- learning the value of leaving more space and not trying to fill up every moment in time. We're still real inspired to find new things to bring into the music. It's never been the kind of band where people are calculated about the kind of music we write. In fact we sort of bend over backwards not to do what could probably make us a little more money and bring us more popularity. I think we've always sort of resisted that in an effort to find something that's our own and unusual. And we're still really excited about doing that and continuing to find other little paths that haven't been trodden and beaten to death."
"We'll go out of our way to put ourselves in, for lack of an adjective, a 'weird' spot," continues Jimmy."We put ourselves in a place were not comfortable, 100-percent, just so we can come up with something different. On The Spin, for instance, we stayed in some little rooming house, we didn't even know what it was going to be until we got there. It was comfortable but it certainly wasn't like sleeping in your own bed. We worked with somebody we never worked with before, and flew 10,000 miles to get there in the dead of winter."
"So doing all these things makes us grow," concludes Jimmy. "We have diversified over the years. When I started out with the 'Jackets, I was just a bass player and I was just starting to get interested in composition. When I did our first record and I was down there at Amigo studios with Tommy LiPuma, I just felt like this naive bass player who was just trying to play the right notes on the songs, and that was the extent of the involvement in the project. Now, fifteen years later, that scope has probably widened by about 10,000 miles."
"Unum Manum," interjects percussionist Will Kennedy.
"Right," laughs Jimmy. "You do all this stuff, and over the years it just builds your personal repertoire, with the band as home base."
"But this is the serious comfort zone," smiles Ferrante.
"Exactly," agrees Jimmy. "When we go into the studio to start recording, it's like dancing with your wife."
"Every time I do any other project with any other musicians, almost always..."
"Be careful," cautions Will, smiling as if Russell was about to expose the family jewels.
"...I always miss my partners and many time I say, 'God I wish Will was playing drums or gee, I wish Jimmy were playing bass.' Because there's just no question that you're going to come up with some music...It's going to be musical. And that's not always a given. A lot of times you go in to play with really good musicians but there's not the same connection."
"I just know when we walk out on stage or when we walk into the studio, you don't even have to think about it," continues Jimmy. "It's like flippin' on a light switch and there's music happening. In other situations sometimes things will click, sometimes they won't, and even when it does click there's still this edge to it. But that's o.k. too because you learn from that as well. You also appreciate your comfort zone which for me is Russ, Will and Bob."
"We can lay off for two months and go and play a gig somewhere ant it's like we've been playing every day," states Bob. "There's a real relationship there that only can happen when you have these kind of people that are empathetic and really communicating and there's no ego involved here at all."
Through their evolution, the Yellowjackets have explored many musical avenues, adjusted through the changes, yet have always maintained a signature of originality. "An obvious part of the band's evolution has been when members have changed," explains Russell, "William coming in for Ricky -- a whole other style of playing, Bob coming in for Marc, and actually Marc coming in for Robben, I mean, every guy sort of brought themselves. And in the band there's no one that's dictating what goes on, everyone's got to be on board and happy with the direction. No one can sort of ram rod their way through. When someone enter's they become a quarter of what's going on. And there's sort of this thread from the past...we can't completely un-tether yourselves from this history we have, so that's sort of loosely weaving through every record."
"The fact that we use different engineers also adds to the difference in the sounds over records," remarks Haslip. "An engineer is just as important, in a lot of ways, as the musicians."
"He's the fifth Yellowjacket," interjects Will.
"We've had Norm Kinny, Lee Hershberg and Al Schmitt," continues Jimmy. "And we've had Erik Zobler and David Hentschel and Jan Erik Kongshaug and Malcolm Pollack now, and James Farber and Mick Guzauski. That's a pretty serious line-up."
An obvious theme threading through the 'Jacket's catelog, is how we, as human beings, relate to each other and our environment, physically, mentally and spiritually."We're all conscious of the human experience," explains Will, "and we're at a really interesting point in terms of our lives on this earth. We've done a lot of damage to this place we call the earth. There have been messages in our music in terms of 'Hey, let's take care of this place because were borrowing it from our children.' We're very conscious of that but without blatantly saying 'do right.'
"It's actually 'this place is on loan,'" inserts Jimmy, "We don't own this place...we're just passing through."
"We're in a position to put out a record every year--we have that blessing," explains Will. "And why not involve the human experience in that? I mean not for the purpose of selling records and not because it's popular, but because it's important. And all of us tend to agree with that type of energy in the recordings and it comes across live as well."
"I think in our personal lives, if you were to examine them," continues Russ, "you'd find that we're pretty moral and trying to do the right thing. But beyond that you can have records and you can talk about partying and you can talk about any number of things: love, shooting policemen, raping people. Lately, the topics have really stretched as to what's permissible to talk about. And I guess you need to ask yourself, like Will said, 'what do you want to put out into the world?' Do you want to put out some more negativity? Do you want to keep heaping things on that pile? Or do you want to try and contribute something to the other stack? What's going to be your legacy?"
The Yellowjackets current project, Dreamland, is not only a testament to their longevity, but is arguably their best project to date. "Dreamland was a word I saw on the TV one day," explains Jimmy about the title. "Actually it was a place. Dreamland was the name of the area where they used to do nuclear testing. But Russell came up with the real meaning that became the anchor for this project."
"When Jimmy said the title I connected with it," continues Russell, "because the first piece of music I worked on for this record, which isn't even represented on the record because we weren't able to use it, was music we wrote music to Maya Angelo's poem "On the Pulse of Morning" which she recited for Clinton's inauguration. And the simplified theme of that poem was realizing our potential as human beings. We've done so many destructive things to ourselves and our land and we are capable of so much. And her poem is sort of a call to arms to really realize that we are divine beings--so act accordingly. So Dreamland is that ideal state where people really are being the people were capable of being. She had one line about: "You created only a little lower than the angels have crouched too long in the bruising darkness, have lain face down too long in ignorance." That line depicts the range that humankind inhabits, form the angels to the slime. So let's get up there closer to the angels--closer to Dreamland. So all these other pieces that are on the record somewhat relate to this society of angels."
"If we had a society of angels," counters Jimmy, "I would say we would have a pretty ideal society to live in. But as you well know, just by turning on the news every night, it's only a dream, and that's what Dreamland is all about."
"I'm reading this book about music that was written in the early 1700's," states Russell as a parting thought, "and the author is saying at that point, acknowledging to all his students that are reading this: if you were to try to learn everything about music it would take several lifetimes. That was 250 years ago. And just think of everything that has happened since then, and we're several hundred lifetimes behind."