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Yellowjackets Buzz Back with 'Time Squared'

When you think about long lived, constantly adapting and evolving jazz bands, how often does The Yellowjackets come to mind? I must confess that I had largely forgotten The Yellowjackets when the Jazz Fusion movement ebbed. Well, that was my mistake because Russell Ferrante (piano and electronic keyboards), Jimmy Haslip (electric bass), Bob Mintzer (tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinets, flute, electric wind instrument) and Marcus Baylor (drums, percussion) have roared back with an impressive and innovative new album, Time Squared (Heads Up). I spoke with Russell Ferrante about how losing a record deal led to the Grammy nominated live album, Mint Jam, the dynamics of making a band work with four talented musicians, and why he doesn’t worry about jazz radio being confused about what The Yellowjackets are about.

JazzReview: Trying to figure out exactly where to slot The Yellowjackets has always been a dicey proposition. My take is, the band is somewhere between the more abstract improvisations and experimentation of Weather Report and the radio-friendly Fusion perfected by Spyro Gyra.

Russell Ferrante: That’s a pretty good read. We’re somewhere in the middle. That’s the story of our lives. If you want to carry it further, we’re in between the various genres. We’re not in the Straight-ahead camp and we’re not in the Boney James Smooth Jazz vein either. We always find ourselves not quite in any one place.

JazzReview: How is Time Squared different from previous Yellowjackets’ albums?

Russell Ferrante: The last two recordings have included a new drummer, Marcus Baylor. Prior to that, the band had been recording for Warner Brothers and we found ourselves without a record contract. Our drummer of 12 years, Will Kennedy, had just left the band, so it was a bit of a transition period. The music and group really started refocusing when Marcus joined in 2000. These two albums, Mint Jam and Time Squared, are both going along a little different path because a new musician was introduced and there’s a little more of the Straight-ahead Jazz thrown in the mix.

As we’ve been playing gigs in the last three years, there’s been more of an emphasis in developing a conversation between the musicians on the bandstand. We’ve always had some of that, but we’ve really developed it further by virtue of having a real nice chemistry between the four musicians. It’s not as much that we play the head, then there’s a solo section, then we play the head again. The music is going in some unpredictable directions live, and I think some of that carried over to the recording of Time Squared.

JazzReview: Just putting together talented players doesn’t make them a team in basketball. How does the team concept work in a band? When you guys disagree about something, how do you work it out?

Russell Ferrante: At the basis of that is why the band has been able to survive for a long time. Each person recognizes that the strength of the band is in our ability to work together and to let each musician really have a stake-financially, musically. Everyone is, in every way, encouraged to bring their ideas, and no one person says it should be this way or that. We’re very open to each other’s ideas and we all know how to give and accept input from each other, and respect each other. I could count on one hand the times that we have had any significant impasse. We just seem to be able to arrive at something that works for everyone.

Even though you can contribute your ideas, you have to be willing to let that go. You have to accept what the collective vision of a song or record, or business decision will be. You have to think that it will be okay when you give up what you want. That can be scary. ‘Gosh, are we doing the right thing? Are we going in the right direction?’ Once you do that a lot, you trust the collective vision is going to work out. It’s gonna be okay.

JazzReview: It’s been five years since the last studio album from The Yellowjackets. What took so long?

Russell Ferrante: Our previous studio album came out in 1998 and our option came up with Warner Brothers. They determined they didn’t want to pick it up. We were without a record company. We looked around and explored our options and there wasn’t anything that really looked that great. . . nor were these other companies jumping to sign the band for what we felt would be entering into a fair deal. We took a year or two exploring those options, then we decided we’d make an album on our own. We had saved money from selling CDs and books at live gigs and online, and financed the recording ourselves.

That was really the beginning of things again moving in the right direction. That recording was Mint Jam. It was a live double-CD. It was nominated for a Grammy and it allowed us to take control of our business careers. We got a better understanding of the financial implications of making a record, how the money is distributed and how you do things from the ground up. That got us moving and it was a great experience. That’s how we met Dave Love [CEO of Heads Up Records and executive producer of Time Squared]. His company licensed Mint Jam for international distribution, although we retained the rights in the U.S.

There have been all kinds of consolidations in the record business and it has put a laser beam focus on the bottom line, seemingly excluding all other considerations. We felt doing something on our own was a good way to keep the creative juices flowing and observe what was going on in the business aspect. We met Dave and he was very enthusiastic about working with us, so we signed a one record arrangement to do a studio album. That’s how Time Squared came about.

JazzReview: It’s a very exciting and adventuresome collaboration. The Yellowjackets have evolved so much from the days when guitarist Robben Ford was in the band and it was a darling of smooth jazz. In the process of creative growth, did you sacrifice some popularity to avoid predictability?

Russell Ferrante: Probably. [pause] Yeah. We have never been that concerned about the popularity issue or written music with radio play in mind. Pretty much from the beginning of the band, we’ve just played the music that seemed natural and excited us or [what] we thought was an unusual combination of music and styles. At one point in particular, in the latter 80’s, we really connected with what radio was playing and people wanted to hear. Then we moved beyond that, continued exploring musical directions, added Bob Mintzer and the music changed. Radio went somewhere else. Our fans went somewhere else. But we continued to play and create. I don’t think we’re too ultra-concerned if we’re ever going to reach an incredible level of popularity. We are thankful to play music we really like and feed our families. Our goals are fairly modest in that regard. Keep it simple: Play music you like with people you like.

JazzReview: So if Yellowjackets aren’t the darlings of Smooth Jazz they once were, where is a casual listener going to find Time Squared being played?

Russell Ferrante: Yeah, good question. I don’t think there’s much chance of hearing it on Smooth Jazz radio. I would be really surprised. You might hear it online someplace or on a National Public Radio station. Possibly, some of the jazz stations might play it, although we’re in the cracks. We’re not quite straight-ahead for those stations.

JazzReview: It’s a "neither fish nor fowl" issue. I’ve always thought of The Yellowjackets as a Smooth Jazz Fusion band, but that’s not the niche the band has carved for itself anymore.

Russell Ferrante: That may be the band’s dilemma forever. However it seems to create problems for everyone but the band. I don’t mean that in any arrogant or snotty way. All I know is, we write music we like. We get really nice gigs. We have a good booking agent. When we go and play people really respond and enjoy the music. Whenever possible, we bring books and CDs to sell and after the show, we go out and meet anyone that wants to meet the band. We’ll autograph their CD, shake their hands or answer any question they want to ask. It’s one-on-one and very personal and at the end of the evening, it feels like a win-win for everyone.

We’ve been able to play and connect with people who enjoy our music. I can’t answer these bigger questions. I’ve got blinders on. We play the gig. We meet the people. We try to be real. If that’s happening and that’s successful, then I feel things are working pretty well.

JazzReview: That’s one of the things I like about jazz in comparison to other musical genres. The distance between the audience and the performer isn’t as great as a rock band playing it an 80,000-seat stadium. You don’t have to sit in row triple XXX in the nosebleed section looking at four dots moving around on a stage. With jazz, you can hear it the way you’re supposed to.

Russell Ferrante: Our band straddles those worlds. In June, we played three one-week engagements in jazz clubs. Prior to that we played two concerts in Malaysia in a 900-seat orchestra hall and filled it up for two nights in a row. We play a variety of gigs, but we always have that component of playing clubs and getting down and dirty with the music. . .digging in and going for stuff that puts us out on the edge. That’s very exhilarating and keeps the band vital.

JazzReview: Naming a favorite song is like naming your favorite child, but is there a song on Time Squared that means something to you in particular?

Russell Ferrante: I’m really pleased with how "Monk’s Habit" turned out. It’s been a really fun one to play live. Even though it’s a quirky song, people can really respond and enjoy it. The music on this record is more closely connected to things that have happened in our lives over the last couple of years. There has been a lot of significant events in the world and personally. As you get older you make that connection a bit more overtly. If that is the case, this record is evidence of that.

The tune "Claire at 18" is about my daughter leaving home and going off to school, and some of the bittersweet quality of that time. Jimmy Haslip just went through a situation with his daughter being gravely ill and spending two months in the hospital. "Gabriela Rose" was the song that was influenced by that experience. "My First Best Friend" is about my first friend and the really tragic thing that happened with him.

JazzReview: The other day I drove over to pick up my dad and I was playing Time Squared in the car. He liked it and he’s got to be the oldest and meanest jazz critic I know. If he liked it, you guys must be on to something.

Russell Ferrante: That’s terrific. We’re interested in a wide variety of music. I guess if you’re going to be true to your interests, it will be reflected in what you write and play.

People crave something that’s real. We’re getting so much canned and calculated information and art. One person is successful and twelve more jump on the bandwagon and try to do the same thing. We just do what we enjoy and hopefully people will respond to something that’s real.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Russell Ferrante
  • Subtitle: Up Close with Russell Ferrante
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