The headliner was the Heads Up recording group, the Yellowjackets. Before the quartet of Russell Ferrante, Bob Mintzer, Jimmy Haslip and Marcus Baylor took the stage, however, audiences were treated to performances by several Mississippi high school and college jazz ensembles.
And during the afternoon, shortly after completing sound checks, the Yellowjackets conducted an hour-long workshop for band students and other guests. The group performed three selections, explained about their musical backgrounds and fielded several questions from the audience.
Later in the evening, the highlight began.
First was the Mississippi Jazz Educators concert. The group consisted of Larry Pannela, director University of Southern Mississippi Jazz Ensemble, tenor and soprano saxophones; Alphonso Sanders, director Delta State University Jazz Ensemble, tenor saxophone; David Miller, festival director, piano; Ameen Abdur-Rashied, who hold a master’s degree in music education from Jackson State University, drums; and London Branch, associate professor of music at Jackson State, bass. Joining this group for the first portion of the concert was guest vocalist Lisa Palmer.
Palmer was superb during her part of the show, singing in a style reminiscent of the divas of jazz’s early days. Her delivery of My Funny Valentine was right on the money, highlighted by Sanders’ tenor.
After Palmer’s departure, the musicians thrilled the audience with some old-school improve, particularly when Sanders and Pannela enjoyed a laid-back tenor duel on a fascinating rendition of Body and Soul.
Then, without much fanfare, the Yellowjackets came on.
The quartet, is contemporary jazz with an old-school mentality. With Ferrante on piano and keyboard, Mintzer on tenor sax and electronic wind instrument (EWI), Haslip on 6-string electric bass and Baylor on drums, this group received several standing ovations particularly after one of many extended solos.
The set included two selections from the Grammy Award-winning group’s most recent release, Time Squared. The album itself played on the group’s tendency to "manipulate time."
As Mintzer explained, jazz is mostly written in a 4-bar motif. But, "lots of things can happen within that bar," he said while introducing Sea Folk, a song that had a complex time signature. Before it began, Mintzer challenged the audience to identify the time, with the person guessing correctly earning a gift certificate for a popular Italian restaurant in Vicksburg.
Sea Folk, at times, sounds like a base 4/4 or a 6/8, but some other stuff was thrown in to keep the average listener from pinning it down.
When they were done, Mintzer, after consulting with Ferrante, explained that it started with two 3/4 bars, changed to 5/4, back to 3/4 and then did something else. Even after that, he didn’t seem too sure what they did.
"Sometimes, stuff just happens. We don’t always know."
Which is the beauty of jazz improvisation.
That was an approach he also used in explaining Runferyerlife, which has become a staple of the Yellowjackets’ live performances over the years. Mintzer said the song, like many, is based on Gerswhin’s I Got Rhythm. To demonstrate, while the other musicians continued playing their parts for Runferyerlife, Mintzer’s solo included the melody for I Got Rhythm and the theme from The Flintstones cartoon series.
Other songs included Red Sea, Spirit of the West, Time Squared, The Evening News, Geraldine and Motet.
Throughout, each player enjoyed one extended solo after another. Baylor, 27, the youngest and newest member of the group, was clearly enjoying himself, smiling consistently throughout the performance. Haslip was intense from start to finish, at times making his bass sing like a regular guitar. Mintzer and Ferrante were hot, as well.
Although only 10 songs were performed, the interplay among the musicians and the stretching out on solos offered plenty to enjoy for the audience of educators, musicians, college students and jazz aficionados.
After the program, the group signed autographs, posed for pictures and chatted with members of the audience.
One man, a drummer, teased Baylor about the way he holds his sticks. Unlike the textbook drummer, he holds both sticks with his fists pointed downward and thumbs forward. The guest said Baylor must have been hard on his teachers. "Young man, hold the stick correctly!" he said in a school-marmy voice.
Another member of the audience noted that Haslip was playing a 6-string bass instead of the typical 4- or 5-string instrument. "I cheated," Haslip said, laughing.
The group, which has toured nationally and internationally will probably return to the studio for their next CD around late summer, Ferrante said.
While Mintzer noted that it was the Yellowjackets’ first performance in Mississippi, here’s hoping it won’t be their last.