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By Arturo Mora Rioja

When pianist Russell Ferrante and bassist Jimmy Haslip recorded Yellowjackets' debut record, being originaly a supporting band for guitarist Robben Ford, they could not even imagine the dimension the band would get in the fusion jazz movement. Today, twenty-five years later, the quartet including Bob Mintzer on saxophones and young Marcus Baylor on drums celebrates their musical siver wedding with the release of Twenty-Five, a live CD + DVD that features two live shows registered a year ago in France and Italy, as well as interviews and other video performances.

Arturo Mora had the chance to chat with the Yellowjackets members through a questionnaire that was divided into general questions answered by Mintzer and Ferrante, and specific questions for each musician in the band. This was the interview's result.



ARTURO MORA: What about the new release, Twenty Five?

BOB MINTZER: 25 is a retrospective of the band’s 25 year career. We’ve recorded a cross section of songs spanning the 25 years, yet the performances reflect the current line-up and sound of the band today.

RUSSELL FERRANTE: Twenty Five is a celebration of keeping our band vital and working for over a quarter century! Along with that, we hope that it conveys our deep sense of gratitude to all the people who have made that possible. That includes our families, our business associates and of course the music fans who have so faithfully supported us these many years.

ARTURO MORA: Which are your feelings about keeping a band together for 25 years?

BOB MINTZER: Many things can happen when you have a long history in a musical organization. A band sound and concept can develop over 25 years with a real sense of purpose and commitment.

RUSSELL FERRANTE: See answer to #1

ARTURO MORA: Keeping freshness in such a long musical journey may not be easy. Which are your musical goals when you face a new Yellowjackets recording?

BOB MINTZER: We all are constantly working on new musical pathways individually, which make for potential new material in terms of the Yellowjackets. Everyone is encouraged to bring ideas to the table. The freshness lies in the fact that none of us care to play the same things the same way for very long. I think this is inherent in the Yellowjackets music.

RUSSELL FERRANTE: We want to find something new! We want to challenge ourselves. We want to write music that will utilize our individual strengths to their maximum. We want to write music that will be inspirational to our peers and maybe even open up possibilities that have not yet been fully explored? I think too that we want to create music that is optimistic and hopeful.

Courtesy Yellowjackets

ARTURO MORA: Who writes the arrangements in the band? Is it the composer of the song or do you work in a more collaborative way?

BOB MINTZER: Some collaborative writing is done, Other times one member brings in an idea and the whole band then has input. Ultimately the new material becomes a full band project.

RUSSELL FERRANTE: The composer usually takes the lead but no matter who writes a song, we want each musician to have creative input and make it their own.

ARTURO MORA: Which are for you the main differences between the initial version of Yellowjackets and the current one?

BOB MINTZER: This version of the Yellowjackets leans more towards the jazz side of music based on the current members. The earlier band was coming out of Rand B a bit more. One is not better than the other.

RUSSELL FERRANTE: In the initial version of YJs, the group was more part and arrangement oriented. The current lineup is more reactive and conversational. We don’t put the emphasis on recreating the recorded version of a song. We strive to make each performance spontaneous and unique.

ARTURO MORA: Yellowjackets started as guitarist Robben Ford’s band. Have you thought in adding a fifth permanent member – let’s say, a guitar player – lately?

BOB MINTZER: There is a certain intimacy in a quartet that we all like. However we enjoy doing special projects with guest artists.

RUSSELL FERRANTE: No thoughts of adding guitar but I’ve thought a lot about expanding the role of vocalist Jean Baylor (Marcus wife).

ARTURO MORA: The end of your contract with Warner Brothers a few years ago should have implied bad times for the band. Have you ever thought in giving up?

BOB MINTZER: No. We enjoy doing this too much. Plus the existence of the Yellowjackets is not totally contingent on the support of a record company.

RUSSELL FERRANTE: That period as well as the earlier period when Robben Ford left the band were very challenging. I think though that we all recognized that we had something very special. We knew it was worth putting in the effort it took to get over those bumps. Also when no record company was interested, we financed and put out our own recording, Mint Jam. That completely revitalized and empowered the band.

Yellowjackets live. Courtesy Yellowjackets

ARTURO MORA: Jazz fusion has always been considered studio music instead of live music, but the Yellowjackets always offer powerful live shows. Do you enjoy playing live more than making records?

BOB MINTZER: Yes. This is a live band. I think our best performances (and recordings) come from live playing situations.

RUSSELL FERRANTE: I don’t agree with the premise of the question. The best so called fusion bands, groups like Miles Davis, Weather Report, Return to Forever, etc were filled with great players. I will say however that depending on the kind of music one writes and intends to record, making studio records might require a very different approach than playing live. The recording studio is like a laboratory where you have a lot of control and options. Playing live is like working without a net. There are always elements that are out of your control and that can make it much more difficult to achieve the desired result.

ARTURO MORA: What’s your point on the current state of jazz fusion? Which bands interest you as listeners?

BOB MINTZER: Bela Fleck, Joe Zawinul

RUSSELL FERRANTE: Honestly, I don’t listen much to “Jazz fusion” music. I do like great musicians though. Some of my favorite jazz musicians are Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, and his entire band, Chris Potter, Vince Mendoza, Claus Ogerman, John Scofield, Michael Brecker, Bobby McFerrin and many many more!

ARTURO MORA: What should the listener expect from Yellowjackets in the future?

BOB MINTZER: More good music that is challenging, thought provoking, well crafted, and honest.

RUSSELL FERRANTE: We never know what’s next but hopefully it will be something that stirs the soul and excites the imagination!


Russell Ferrante. Courtesy Yellowjackets

Russell Ferrante - piano, keyboards

ARTURO MORA: In relation to Yellowjackets, what does excite you the most, composing or playing?

RUSSELL FERRANTE: They are equally satisfying in different ways. Composing is mostly a solitary activity requiring both flashes of inspiration and lots of time to methodically work out and develop ones ideas. (1% inspiration, 99% perspiration!) Playing is about being in the moment with no chance to redo or rethink what you’ve just done. For me it’s much more hit and miss but really exhilarating when you’re in the zone!

ARTURO MORA: When you compose for the band, do you restrict your writing to a quartet line-up, or do you just write what’s on your mind and “let’s see how do we face it in the studio”?

RUSSELL FERRANTE: I let the ideas flow without too much regard to who and how something will be played. It’s maybe similar to what some writers experience when they say their characters reveal themselves over the course of a story.

ARTURO MORA: Which instrument do you prefer for soloing: piano or synthesizer?

RUSSELL FERRANTE: Without question, piano.

Bob Mintzer.
Courtesy Yellowjackets

Bob Mintzer - tenor saxophone, EWI

ARTURO MORA: When you start composing a tune, do you know what project is it for before hand (Yellowjackets or the Bob Mintzer Big Band)?

BOB MINTZER: I generally start by thinking of the specific ensemble I’m writing for. This includes taking into consideration what the various players do and what sort of tune is appropriate for the current project.

ARTURO MORA: What feelings do you experiment soloing with the EWI as opposed to soloing with the tenor saxophone?

BOB MINTZER: The EWI is a very flexible and expressive instrument. It is a nice contrast to the saxophone, and adds a nice dimension as far as a melodic and soloing voice.

ARTURO MORA: Which are your main current influences regarding the use of electronics in a jazz context?

BOB MINTZER: I’ve always liked Weather Report, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock a lot in this regard. Having played with Steps Ahead, Jaco Pastorius, and now the Yellowjackets, I’ve had the opportunity to experience the electronics in jazz syndrome first hand. It works very well in the right hands.

Jimmy Haslip. Courtesy Yellowjackets

Jimmy Haslip - electric bass

ARTURO MORA: Yours is a very strange bass technique, as your bass strings are in the opposite placement as usual. Have you found any real advantages and disadvantages of playing this way?

JIMMY HASLIP: There’s really NO advantages with this unconventional approach.
I also see NO perplexing disadvantages either...

It’s basically a question of extreme study and practice to overcome any disadvantages and of course, more of the same to progress on the instrument and to experiment with the instrument in order to clearly and hopefully delineate a strong and unique voice...

ARTURO MORA: You also appear in the last tribute by the Jaco Pastorius Big Band (The Word is Out). How about that experience?

JIMMY HASLIP: I felt much more prepared and comfortable on the second Jaco Pastorious Big Band recording . . . The first project was intense for me as I had to perform on two classic pieces; “Havona” and “Continuum”... With not a lot of time to prepare... That made really nervous as I wanted to play my very best for the recording... The second project afforded me more time to prepare and I was to perform on one piece only... “KURU/Speak Like a Child”... A piece I had actually played before... I was honoured to contribute again and as Jaco was my teacher in 1975...
A thrill to play his music... It’s always an opportunity to push myself as a musician and learn more about Jaco’s playing and writing... He was a genius !

ARTURO MORA: Regarding bass technique, composing, arranging, soloing or whatever related to the musical process, what are you studying now?

JIMMY HASLIP: For technique and soloing at the moment I am transcribing some guitar solos and studying a vast number of guitar players... Very enlightening on many levels... And I feel that this study has contributed to a more focused direction in both my technique and soloing...

As far as arranging and composition, I have been listening to a lot of Classical music and studying scores:
Alban Berg, Mahler, Ligetti, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Mozart, Brahms, Penderecki, Prokofiev, Bartok, Lutoslawski, Samuel Barber and Shostakovich to name a few. This music is filled with eye opening composition and compositional tools. Not to mention some really glorious and passionate music to draw inspiration from.

Marcus Baylor (front of the lineup).
Courtesy Yellowjackets

Marcus Baylor - drums

ARTURO MORA: Entering a band with such a long career may suppose a big responsibility. Was it hard to take that weight off, or did you start enjoying your play from the very first rehearsal?

MARCUS BAYLOR: More than anything, I feel blessed to be a part of this legacy. From day one the guys have always treated me like family and I enjoy playing with the band. I was a fan of the Yellowjackets long before I joined. The drummers before me paved the way. When you join a band it’s about being a part of the chemistry.

ARTURO MORA: Please explain your approach to composing for the Yellowjackets. What instruments do you use and how do you face the writing process?

MARCUS BAYLOR: My process of writing starts with a groove sometimes or maybe I might play something on the piano. I have a home studio in which I record my ideas. After I play my song for the guys they may feel inspired to add other parts. The main thing about the way I write is what inspires me which is my faith in God, being a Christian. I really want to inspire and touch people lives with the gift that God has given me.

ARTURO MORA: Among the drummers who influence you the most, are there any young ones? Who?

MARCUS BAYLOR: There are a lot of drummers I love to listen to. I have to give you the full spectrum on who influences me: Michael Williams (Commisioned), Dana Davis (Winans), Spanky (Tye Tribbett), Chris Coleman (Israel & New Breed), Brian Blade, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Teddy Campbell, Lewis Nash, Jeff “Tain Watts, Will Kennedy, Keith Carlock, and Marvin and McQuitty. There are so many others.


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