Yellowjackets: Just Call It Good
After 37 years together, the quintessential electric jazz group Yellowjackets celebrated the release of their 23rd recording and third for Mack Avenue Records, “Cohearence.” With its pockets of buoyance, mystery, tumult and whimsy, Cohearence plays out as a multifaceted documentation of how far the once “fusion” band has come. Led by founding member, keyboardist and primary composer Russell Ferrante, Yellowjackets continue to practice their signature brand of high energy rhythm and improvisational group chemistry. Also featuring drummer (since 1986) William Kennedy, saxophonist (since 1991) Bob Mintzer, and recent addition (two years running) Australian bass virtuoso Dane Alderson. *At Birdland through Saturday, April 8th: Tix here
In the seconds-long hush between the welcoming introduction and the downbeat of their first set, to begin a weeklong residency at Birdland, drummer Will Kennedy lets out a “Woooo!” to set the tone for the evening. The audience responds in kind. After three decades Yellowjackets are still full of vitality and excitement…
Beforehand, we sat down with Russell Ferrante, Bob Mintzer, Dane Alderson, and a life-size cutout of William Kennedy (who was stuck in transit) to talk about longevity, labels, and more:
Birdland: Yellowjackets are mentioned by a lot of musicians as an inspiration. What does it take to be a band who inspire other bands?
Russell Ferrante: I’m going to be cute and say it’s probably the kiss of death because if musicians like you the general public probably does not.
BL: That is cute but we know you draw a public crowd as well.
RF: Well we’ve been doing it for 37 years, so I think longevity is definitely a factor.
BL: 37 years, how does that happen?
RF: I don’t know, it just happened! Every year, it doesn’t feel like that long and it doesn’t feel like, okay we’re going to stay together forever, we’ve just enjoyed playing. It’s got a momentum of it’s own.
BL: When asked, the staff at Birdland described your music as “innovative,” “funky” — but most of all, “full-of-life.” How do you sustain so much life for such a long period of time?
Bob Mintzer: It’s what we do. We play music. We enjoy playing together. There’s a concept that’s evolved over 37 years and there’s no reason to not do it, so we keep doing it. As Russ said, it’s hard to codify what keeps it going except that we enjoy what we’re doing.
BL: And Bob, you have so many other projects that you’re working on…
BM: …Don’t remind me! (laughs) But yes, it’s actually a testament to this group that they’re so flexible, though they’re probably pissed at me some of the time. (laughs) But yes, I think it’s safe to say that we really value what we do here.
RF: And it’s nice to bring in some youth! (motioning to Dane) To kick everyone in the behind a little bit.
Dane Alderson: Really I’m the one getting the behind-kicking! Not a gig goes by that isn’t a challenge, an adventure, it’s pure joy that I get to play with this band.
BL: Bob, in a recent interview you talked about the immense talent among in the up-and-coming generation of musicians. Other than Dane, are there specific younger musicians out there that you would like to work with?
BM: Yes, many. It’s hard to pinpoint. But I think it’s safe to say we all listen to the younger players and see what they’re doing as a definite means of inspiration.
RF: There was one time when Bob had some commitments and we had an offer to do some gigs so we had [saxophonist] Donny McCaslin come and play with us. So he’s one of the people I’m inspired by. I mean, would you even consider him to be in the young generation? He’s kind of now in the middle. I played with his father, who was a mentor for many young musicians in Santa Cruz, California, in the Bay Area. It’s kind of interesting that there’s a lot of children of well-known musicians. We worked with Felix Pastorius [bassist, son of Jaco Pastorius] for many years, and Matthew Garrison [bassist, son of Jimmy Garrison] played with us in another city. It’s so remarkable that these children of the guys we idolized are on the scene now.
BL: That says a lot about your band, that you cross through generations to bring people together.
BM: Yes, and I think that’s a big misconception with some people. I mean, those in the know, who really know the band and the music would know what I’m talking about, but sometimes I think this band is lumped into this category of “fusion music.” But it has gone well beyond that, a long time ago. Coming from a background, where I’m playing in all different kinds of settings, I would say this music is all encompassing. It’s one of the things that actually keeps me in the band. It’s challenging and interesting and broad in scope and I think has the potential to reach a lot of people, without really compromising.
BL: I guess that’s one question that seems to follow the band. What does “fusion” mean? Is it even a relevant label any longer?
RF: Originally when the term came out, I recall that it was associated with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever and Weather Report. It was all like rock and very electric-music-meets-jazz, and that wasn’t so descriptive of what we did. But I guess the term has broadened and maybe it means a lot of different things to different people. If you consider it just the blending of all these different styles, in some general way, I guess we’re a fusion band. But everything is fusion! I mean, jazz was a fusion of blues and field calls and European music, so everything is really fusion… These categories, I think all musicians sort of recoil at having their music categorized. I can’t think of any musician who really likes it, because you like to think you’re unique.
BM: Right, like, is there a John Smith Fusion Band on the market? I don’t think so. I think that the term really doesn’t work very well. I mean, it’s something that happened in the ’70s, and like Russ says, anything can have elements of fusion in it, I suppose, but it somehow started and is still associated with you know, Return to Forever, and that sort of hard hitting rock and roll style improvised music.
BL: Where is your happy medium between improvisation and composition?
RF: Well I think maybe one of the things that has always been the case with us is our music is weighted, more than some other bands, towards the composition side. It’s not like, everyone play 32-bars ahead and then everyone solo. I mean, we try to build in a fair amount of structure but it’s always a balance. Too much of that structure and then it gets restrictive and it becomes the same thing every night and that’s the kiss of death. Too little, and there’s maybe not enough to hang on to. So we’re always trying to find that balance.
BM: I’ve played in a lot of bands. In this one, being a composer and arranger — as we all are in the band — this is the most intriguing group I have played with because there is this nice balance of composed material and opportunity to improvise, even within the composed material. I mean it’s very pliable. We’ve been playing together long enough that things change every night, and we’re really open to that. Whereas I think some bands play the same set list with the same tunes, and that’s not the case with this band.
BL: Maybe just “jazz” is a better description.
BM: Yeah, it’s jazz.
BL: Dane, how does it feel for you to jump into such a comfortable dynamic?
DA: I mean, to get to play with musicians like these guys, living legends —
RF: (looks around) — who’s he talking about? (laughter)
DA: I hate to use the word easy, because it certainly isn’t easy, but when you’re playing with musicians like these guys, there’s such a beautiful dynamic on stage, there’s so much room to breath and room to experiment and try new ideas. It is a challenge and I do get pretty nervous sometimes, but knowing the caliber of musicians I’m playing with I always feel really comfortable and it’s amazing.
BL: Finally what has been your experience, playing at Birdland?
RF: Well, I think every jazz musician would agree, New York City is the epicenter of this music. It’s the place where it all sort of happened, all those great innovations. So you feel like a part of history when you play here. I grew up on the West Coast so I always romanticized New York City. And the other thing that’s really great about this gig in particular is that you get to play for 5 nights in a row, and that’s becoming increasingly rare, unfortunately. During other periods of time, that’s what the musicians got to do, sometimes playing all year long — under some difficult conditions, I’m sure — but the music gets so strong when you can play a number of nights in a row.
BM: And that’s where all the older musicians, of the 1950s and 60s, really honed their skills, playing these extended jobs all over the world. That’s how people really learned how to play back then, by getting on a band and really playing every night.
RF: And the other thing is all the people who come down to the club who we get to see every night, I mean, we’ll see friends who are musicians who we really respect in the audience. That’s always really nice and it makes you up your game. We’re just really thrilled to be here and honored to be worthy of this bandstand.
Later, a few songs into their eclectic set, switching between tenor sax and EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), Bob Mintzer tells the audience, “we don’t call our music anything in particular.” Drummer William Kennedy (who made it in time for the show), dabbing sweat off his forehead, doesn’t miss a beat: “Good!” he yells out, “We call this music good!” Whatever the label, Yellowjackets music is filled with the ‘good stuff,’ the kind of stuff that can only be cooked up by the most seasoned bands.