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From Jaco to the Yellowjackets and beyond, Jimmy Haslip keeps reaching for creative freedom.
The way Jimmy Haslip remembers it, the strong encouragement and casual mentorship he received from his idol Jaco Pastorius, during his formative years in the mid-’70s, meant everything to him. It helped set him on course to become an elite bassist, songwriter and producer in his own right, with the Yellowjackets and hundreds of other artists over the past five decades.
Haslip first met Pastorius not long after he moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles, just as the latter began his five-year stint with Weather Report. There were multiple points of connection. Haslip’s rock-edged, Little Feat-esque band Adventure shared management with Weather Report, and Adventure often rehearsed in spaces next to Joe Zawinul’s era-defining fusion band. In addition, one of Haslip’s first major jazz gigs was with Flora Purim and Airto, who opened for Weather Report on tour.
"It was incredible being able to spend time with Jaco in all these settings and learn so much from him via these informal but very impactful lessons,” Haslip says. “He was a magical human being who brought an extra creative element to his playing that not many have — kind of like what Jimi Hendrix brought to the guitar as compared to Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. He showed me a lot of unique things to work on. He was very kind in complimenting the positive aspects of my playing and offering advice in the areas I was looking to improve.”
“I’ll never forget one of the most important bits of advice he gave me,” he adds. “He told me that I should listen to horn players at a time when I was getting most of my inspiration from fellow bassists. So I began digging deeper into Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, which opened new doors of understanding about harmony and improvisation.”
Haslip and Pastorius’ friendship continued into the early ’80s, when Haslip was four years into his decades long tenure with the Yellowjackets, and Pastorius, concurrent with his final year in Weather Report, created a fiery, swaggering big band to record his 1981 solo album Word of Mouth. The groundbreaking recording featured a lineup of legends, including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine, Jack DeJohnette, Michael Brecker, Tom Scott, Chuck Findley and Toots Thielemans. In 1982, Pastorius led a global tour with Word of Mouth as a 21-piece big band.
Haslip’s passion for bold contemporary big band arrangements, largely sparked by this Pastorius landmark, culminates now with ARCeology: The Music of MSM Schmidt (Blue Canoe). A hard-driving, expansively arranged project anchored by Haslip and his ARC Trio (with keyboardist Scott Kinsey and Hungarian drummer Gergö Borlai), ARCeology features the Grammy-winning John Daversa Big Band in addition to contributions from guitarists Nguyên Lê, Mike Miller, Steve Khan and Oz Noy and B3 organist Brian Auger. The eight-song album spotlights fresh arrangements of previously recorded Schmidt material, plus new pieces composed by Schmidt and Kinsey.
ARCeology has its roots in the 15-year collaborative relationship between Michael (MSM) Schmidt, a prolific German-based keyboardist-composer, and Haslip, who had produced three previous albums for him and appeared on several others. In 2019, Schmidt reached out to the bassist about doing another project together. His vision was to create a full orchestra recording that would give a batch of his previously recorded compositions a bigger sound. The two discussed hiring a European-based orchestra, but passed due to budget considerations.
“Then I came up with the idea of making it a big band project and Michael agreed,” says Haslip. “We had already chosen a group of tunes from his previous records to work with, most of which were tunes I had produced. Then, as everything came into focus, I suggested that we add two new songs so it wouldn’t be only remade music. Once we hit on the big band concept, we thought about approaching famous groups like the WDR Big Band or the Metropole Orkest. But Michael had recently come to L.A., where we saw John Daversa’s ensemble at the 40th anniversary of the Baked Potato. We were blown away by John’s progressive arrangements, and it made perfect sense to call him to help develop these new pieces that Scott had already done some arranging on. I also started casting around for various guitar players.”
Prevailing COVID restrictions led to the unique bicoastal nature of the project, with Haslip’s ARC Trio laying down foundational tracks at Kinsey’s home studio in L.A. and Daversa helming the big band sessions in Miami, where he is Chair of Studio Music and Jazz at the Frost School of Music. Everything was on course for this to be the next MSM Schmidt album until Spring 2021, when the composer, having heard all the rough mixes, suggested to Haslip that it should be an ARC Trio record.
“I was on the fence about that,” the bassist says, “but Michael was pretty adamant, and ultimately it all made sense. Considering the way everyone involved rose to the challenge, it would have been an incredible record no matter whose name was on it.”
The freewheeling nature of ARCeology harkens back to the ever-evolving sense of invention Haslip brought for 35 years to the Yellowjackets — a stretch that included 21 albums (starting with their self-titled 1981 Warner Bros. debut), two Grammys and a song (“Ballad of the Whale”) on the soundtrack of the hit 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Haslip admits that while their labels weren’t always thrilled with their choice of stylistic direction from album to album — most notably, MCA’s dislike of their polyrhythmic, African-flavored Four Corners — he fondly remembers that the ’80s were a time when he and pianist Russell Ferrante could creatively negotiate with a large company and convince them to release their recordings “as is” and let the fans decide.
“Back then, while we felt extremely lucky to have a record deal, our basic thought was if we all liked the music that was coming to us on any specific project, we would continue to develop it, whatever the label’s initial response might be,” says Haslip. “Bands like ours were allowed to be laboratories of creativity, free to try different textures using the emerging technology that took a foothold during that time, like sequencers and synthesizers. Inspired by all the sonic possibilities, we could draw on various sounds to create numerous moods and expressive harmonic structures. Those tools were at the forefront of pop and jazz at the time and we had a blast experimenting with them, which made it possible for us to ask ourselves, from record to record, What are we going to do now?”
“Not that every Jackets album was incredible,” he concedes, “but we would always try to put out something a little different or experimental on some level, rather than do cookie cutter production. Each project had a distinctive personality. All these years later, even after 10 years since leaving the band, I still bring the same mindset to my projects, open to wherever a concept is meant to lead. That’s exactly what happened with ARCeology. It started out as one thing, but through a variety of serendipitous events and decisions, turned into exactly what it was meant to be all along.” - Jonathan Widran