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Setting a high bar for contemporary jazz in the ’80s, the Yellowjackets have spent decades dodging genre labels and limitations.
Venerable L.A. jazz quartet the Yellowjackets first formed as guitarist Robben Ford’s backing band for a 1977 solo recording. The group then spread roots through a string of 1980s recordings under its own name, with and without Ford, from a self-titled 1981 debut to The Spin in 1989. Forty-plus years after its inception, the Yellowjackets are still going strong, as evidenced by their most recent release,Yellow (Mack Avenue).
Early on, keyboardist Russell Ferrante, bassist Jimmy Haslip, drummer Ricky Lawson and saxophonist Marc Russo (who replaced Ford in 1983) bridged the gaps between fusion and contemporary crossover jazz. Often, the label was dictated by whether Ferrante — now the group’s only remaining original member — played acoustic piano or synthesizers. And during that decade, advances and trends were exponentially electronic.
“There were lots of technological tools that emerged in the 1980s, in MIDI, synthesizers and sequencers,” Ferrante says via conference call from Los Angeles. “We were early adapters to, and adopters of, that technology.”
“We’re definitely products of that era,” adds drummer Will Kennedy, who first replaced Lawson in 1987, from Katy, Texas. “There were songs the Yellowjackets performed that involved sequencing, so I wore an earpiece to play with click tracks. We were utilizing future technology while being inspired by jazz traditions in hopes of creating middle ground.”
The Yellowjackets earned two Grammy Awards during the 1980s: Best R&B Instrumental Performance for the song “And You Know That” (from Shades, 1986) and “Best Jazz Fusion Performance” for the 1988 album Politics. Without an earlier nomination, however, the band might not be in its 45th year with the current lineup of Ferrante, Kennedy, saxophonist Bob Mintzer (who joined in 1990) and electric bassist Dane Alderson (2015).
"When Robben left, there was a question of whether we’d continue,” Ferrante says. “We’d made a transitional second album, Mirage a Trois, with Robben on a couple tunes. Then I went on the road with Joni Mitchell, Jimmy with Al Jarreau, and Ricky eventually ended up with Lionel Richie. But we received a surprise Grammy nomination [Best Jazz Fusion Performance] for the album, got all this attention and re-emerged with Marc.”
Kennedy was the first to notice the Australian Alderson, who had large shoes to fill in replacing original member Haslip. “I saw a clip of Dane playing on YouTube,” Kennedy says. “I downloaded it and sent it to Russ and Bob, who responded, ‘Who is this guy?’ I didn’t know, since I was only sending it as an example of the kind of player we needed. As it turned out, I’d met the drummer he was playing with, so I was able to get in touch just as Dane moved to Virginia.”
Mintzer’s 1990 replacement of Russo pointed the Yellowjackets in more organic directions, sonically and compositionally. The veteran tenor saxophonist’s résumé already included hundreds of credits with the likes of Buddy Rich, Tito Puente and Jaco Pastorius.
“When we first started playing with Bob, he was living in New York, working with small groups and big bands,” says Ferrante. “So he was way more well-versed in acoustic jazz than any of us. But some of our sounds also influenced him, and our styles merged.”
The quartet still occasionally crosses over into contemporary-smooth territory, but its two most recent recordings exemplify its unique fusing of traditional elements. Jackets XL (2020) is a powerful romp with the German WDR Big Band, with Mintzer as conductor. And the new Parallel Motion features Ferrante almost exclusively playing acoustic piano. For the first time, in fact, he recorded on his own Fazioli grand piano.
“Whether we’re playing a groove tune, swing tune or Latin tune,” Ferrante says, “we’re listening, reacting and often improvising in the moment. At our most recent show, a guy came up and said, ‘You guys are a straightahead band masquerading as a fusion band.’” — Bill Meredith