In 1981, a small crew of talented musicians led by guitar virtuoso Robben Ford dedicated themselves to pushing the boundaries of jazz with a deceptively intense, distinctive sound that incorporated elements of bebop, funk, R&B and rock. They called themselves the Yellowjackets, and the buzz was instantaneous.
That was 25 years ago, and a few of the names and faces have changed since then. What remains is a powerhouse quartet – including original members Russell Ferrante on keyboards and Jimmy Haslip on bass – that’s still fiercely dedicated to that original vision of improvisational jazz that draws from a vast range of musical sources and yet defies categories. That initial buzz is no less intense today than it was a quarter century ago.
Heads Up International celebrates this landmark anniversary with the release of Twenty-Five (HUCD 3112), a combination CD/bonus DVD package that captures two electrified live performances by the Yellowjackets during their European tour in the fall of 2005. In addition to the live performances themselves, the DVD portion of the two-disc release offers an array of behind-the-scenes material: interviews with band members (past and present) and session players, and a variety of other background and retrospective footage. The project offers a snapshot of where the Jackets are today, and a look back at where they’ve been.
"The basic foundation, that initial spark of innovation, is still there," says Haslip. "We’re very open minded and are always looking to the horizon to see what’s up ahead. We’re very dedicated to our craft, and we’re constantly trying to progress. That ultimately is a motivating factor in keeping a band like this going. It’s a laboratory, in essence, where some great experiments have taken place."
Recorded at The New Morning concert hall in Paris in October 2005, the CD is essentially an eight-song retrospective of some of the band’s finest work – as interpreted by the current lineup of Haslip, Ferrante, saxophonist Bob Mintzer and drummer Marcus Baylor. The songs connect to every period of Yellowjackets’ evolution – from the uplifting "Revelation" (1986) to the free-spirited "My Old School" (1992) to the intricate rhythms of Marcus Baylor’s "Freeday" (2005).
"Our intention was to include some of the earlier tunes, but to play them in the way we play now," says Ferrante. "Paris was one of the strongest shows on that tour. Live performances in general are always very much in the moment, and the results can be hit-or-miss sometimes. Some nights are better than others, but everything came together on this particular night."
Bridging the old with the new has been a smooth process for Baylor, the relative newcomer to the band who joined the lineup in 2000. He’s discovered that success with the Jackets is not about rank or tenure, but about being positive, open-minded and willing to grow. "When a new piece is added to the puzzle, the band automatically takes on a new personality without even thinking about it," says Baylor. "But these guys are just so open minded. They just say, ‘Hey, let’s just play, not necessarily this way or that way, but let’s just play and find a way to connect the pieces of the puzzle together.’ And when we do play, we are of one mind. Personally, that’s what I want people to see, more than just this guy who plays great or that guy who plays great. I just want people to see four guys who work well as a unit and move in the same direction to make positive music for our listeners to enjoy."
The DVD performance, filmed at the Naima Club in Forli, Italy, includes a set list that digs back even further. "Imperial Strut" and "Matinee Idol" are taken from the Jackets’ eponymous 1981 debut album, while Ferrante’s devotional "Geraldine" and the environmentally conscious Ferrante/Haslip composition "Greenhouse" are representative of the Jackets’ late-1980s and early-1990s groove. "Time Squared," a rhythmically complex piece penned by Mintzer and first heard on the 2003 album of the same name, is in part a tribute to the courage and perseverance of New York and its residents in the aftermath of 9/11.
The group considers the free bonus DVD as a way for them to give something back to their loyal fans. The DVD was directed and edited by Tony Zawinul, son of the multi-faceted jazz keyboardist Joe Zawinul. "Tony came to Los Angeles and we talked for hours at various locations, including the studio where we recorded with Robben Ford," says Ferrante. "We went to the house where we all first met. We traveled around to different studios in L.A. where we recorded. He interviewed a number of musicians that we worked with along the way. There are archival videos, mostly from Europe. A lot of the festivals there are televised, so there’s documentation of a lot of those performances."
And yet, for as gratifying as milestone anniversaries can be, Yellowjackets continue to look to the future. "I think we could be together for another 25 years," says Mintzer. "It's the kind of band that could thrive for a long time, because of the democratic philosophy, and the level of commitment to what we do. There’s a long-standing bond that we share, and I don’t think it will ever go away. It’s just something that developed over the years of playing together and making music together."
Whether you’ve been on board since the very early days or you’ve just discovered the Jackets in recent years, Twenty-Five is a big enough number to accommodate everyone. Experience the sublime magic that comes from a quarter century of innovation and exploration.