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October 12, 2004
Pianist Russell Ferrante first met bassist Jimmy Haslip in 1977 while recording an album with hotshot fusion guitar-slinger Robben Ford, an alumnus of Tom Scott’s fabled L. A. Express. The two hit it off musically and, with fellow Ford sideman Ricky Lawson on drums, began pursuing their own vision. Their 1981 debut recording as Yellowjackets established a partnership that has produced a remarkable body of work over the years.
Ferrante, who’ll be at the Roper Performing Arts Center Wednesday night with Haslip and the current Yellowjackets lineup in a Jazz for Hope benefit concert, spoke with me recently from his home in southern California.
“I went a couple of years to San Jose State,” he recalled. “Robben was working with Jimmy Witherspoon and had a tour to the east coast and then on to Europe for a month. So I quit school and jumped on board. That was 1973 and that was my introduction to the world of touring and doing it at a level above just the local level.”
His introduction to music had come much earlier while growing up in the San Francisco bay area.
“I started taking piano lessons at age 9. I wasn’t really tuned in to jazz or popular music at all. I played the classical pieces that I was assigned every week, and then the music I was hearing in church was really pretty down-the-pike hymns and very traditional music, Protestant hymns.
“[My father] was director of a church choir in San Jose. It was called Bethel Church, and it was Assemblies of God, which would be more fundamentalist. I must say that after high school, I sort of flew off in the other direction away from organized religion. My wife and I and our daughter landed about five or six years ago back in church, but in the Episcopal Church. So I’ve traveled a different kind of route, but certainly some connection to something beyond the everyday---back to church and God and things greater than ourselves.”
Yellowjackets came together as the first great jazz fusion era was ending in the late ‘70s. A musical genre that had begun the decade as a creative blend of rock rhythms and jazz sensibilities was becoming formulaic. Ferrante and his partners hoped to avoid that growing homogeneity while still making music that was both challenging and accessible.
“The early stuff like Mahavishnu, Return to Forever, Weather Report had a lot of hair on it,” he says. “Then there was kind of a branch, maybe like the Spyro branch, that had more of a pop sensibility about it. It was still instrumental, and the guys were good players, but the music was certainly tamer than the earlier stuff. The original Weather Report band with Zawinul and Wayne Shorter and Miroslav Vitous was arguably the best. Each guy on his instrument was in the top handful of players on their ax.
“So, when we came along, there was that music and there were other things that were starting to emerge. A lot of technology was available at that time, synths and other tools to make music. We were young guys; we didn’t know anything except the music that we liked. And we just sorta put together the things that were around us and the influences that we grew up with---listening to Sly and James Brown, the R&B stuff; and then Miles and Coltrane.”
Early Yellowjackets recordings tended to get lumped into that “Spyro branch” that would later devolve into “smooth jazz,” with their “Ballad of the Whale” from the Star Trek IV soundtrack an early staple of the format. But as the individuals matured as players and composers, and as new members arrived, the band’s music became deeper and more satisfying. The arrival of saxophonist and bass clarinetist Bob Mintzer in 1990 brought in another talented writer and arranger to complement Ferrante and Haslip, expanding the group’s sonic palette.
“To me, the most important thing about our band is it’s really four equal people,” Ferrante explains. “It’s a collective; it’s not one person’s vision. So when there’s the introduction of another musical personality into the music, it’s going to really have a big impact. We want the music to go into different directions.
“It’s been an interesting evolution just getting comfortable with letting go of our individual ideas and surrendering to that group vision or the collective consciousness, whatever you want to call it. Really trying to let that be the strength of the band instead of someone’s ironclad vision---just give that up and let the other people find their parts and make their contributions and write the tunes that they hear. Somehow we’ve been able to make that work through the years. I think everyone really appreciates being in a band where they have a strong voice and they’re able to be themselves and they can trust that the other people will support them.”
With the 1995 release of Dreamland, the Yellowjackets moved far beyond the rest of the contemporary jazz pack, perfecting the sophisticated style their group vision had been developing for the previous decade and a half. Since then the band has become a musical genre unto itself, with last year’s Time Squared another masterful example spotlighting the current roster of Ferrante, Haslip, Mintzer and drummer Marcus Baylor. Even the Christmas album, Peace Round, available at the Jackets’ website during the 2003 holiday season and set for broader release this year by Heads Up, fits snugly into that distinctively identifiable Yellowjackets groove.
After 27 years of making music together and 19 Yellowjackets albums, Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip continue to inspire one another.
“He’s an amazing individual,” Ferrante says of his longtime musical mate. “His approach to music and life, and mine, are very different, but I think complementary. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we have enjoyed working with each other.
“Jimmy is very intuitive and un-analytical, and I’m really amazingly analytical and sometimes non-intuitive. He’ll throw stuff out there that’s really on the edges and I’ll find a way to reel ‘em in and put them in a form that works. Conversely, if I have this tight structure but maybe get stuck somewhere, he’ll have this suggestion that just comes out of left field. It’s really satisfying.
“He’s not a competitive person. Whatever successes others have, he’s very happy for you. That’s the kind of person you want to be around. He’s very positive.”
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