Yellowjackets - Creating an eclectic mix

Russell Ferrante is on the line from Los Angeles to talk about Yellowjackets’ imminent Scottish tour. During the conversation some names crop up that you might not immediately associate with one of America’s leading jazz bands of the past thirty years and counting. Joni Mitchell isn’t a surprise inclusion, since Ferrante toured with her Wild Things Run Fast band in the early 1980s, but Metallica?

It turns out that Metallica’s bass guitarist, Robert Trujillo, played a significant part in the tracks on Yellowjackets’ forthcoming album that gave Ferrante and the band’s more senior members goosebumps. Trujillo doesn’t actually play on the album but by rescuing and renovating the bass guitar that once belonged to the late bass innovator Jaco Pastorius and lending it to Pastorius’ son, Felix, he was able to re-establish a link that goes back to before Felix was born.

“When Jaco died a lot of his belongings were scattered and his bass was lost until it eventually came up for auction and Robert was able to buy it for quite a large sum of money,” says Ferrante. “Our saxophonist, Bob Mintzer, played with Jaco’s Word of Mouth Band and in fact, he visited Felix in hospital when he was born. So there we were in the studio, Felix has joined us while our regular bassist, Jimmy Haslip takes a sabbatical and we have Jaco’s saxophone player and Jaco’s son playing Jaco’s bass. It was quite an eerie but thrilling experience.”

With Haslip gone, Ferrante is the one Yellowjacket who has been there for the entire journey. Formed in 1978 to work on guitarist Robben Ford’s Inside Story album, Yellowjackets have had an up and down history. The first recording they put out under their own name, Yellowjackets, won a Grammy nomination in 1981, much to their surprise – “I’d heard of the Grammy’s,” says Ferrante, “but they weren’t something I thought about us being involved in.” But after that boost, Ford left, precipitating a catalogue of arrivals and departures that Ferrante says has brought both difficult phases and new adventures.

“Some of our personnel changes have been harder to deal with than others,” he says. “Losing Robben, for example, felt like the end of the road at first. But we’ve always been able to go off and do other things – when I was working with Joni Mitchell that time, Jimmy was touring with Al Jarreau and I think Will, our drummer, was with Lionel Ritchie – and then come back to Yellowjackets refreshed and ready to get down to making music. It’s like home base for me, certainly, and it almost doesn’t matter who the individuals are in the band at any one time because it’s the collective endeavour that matters. It’s never been down to one guy to come up with all the ideas.”

When they put together Timeline, the album that marked their official thirtieth anniversary in 2011, there were no grand plans.

“We wanted to recognise the fact that we’d made it to that milestone but with everyone in the band contributing material, we’ve never established a particular theme in advance of a recording,” says Ferrante. “We all just start writing and gather all the material we have together, select what we all feel is the best and refine it. So if a theme or a focus emerged in Timeline, it was the music itself, with us just trying to be as good as we can be.”

The arrival of Felix Pastorius has been a fillip and as the band prepares to tour Scotland for the first time for the new J-Word project with Bob Franceschini replacing Mintzer and Will Kennedy back on drums after a ten year absence, Ferrante feels the band has had an injection of youth.

“Felix is my daughter’s age, thirty,” he says. “And the great thing about him is, he’s not just a wonderful musician, he’s a wonderful person – and that’s important when you’re spending so much time together travelling,” he says. “Bob Mintzer tracked him for a few years then heard him with Jeff Coffin’s band and when we auditioned bass players, we asked Felix along and he was the one who stood out. It’s great having, not just a Pastorius in the band but this particular Pastorius.”

From The Herald, March 8, 2013.

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