Bob Mintzer - Yellowjacket remembers Jaco's runaway train

When Bob Mintzer flew from New York to Los Angeles to play saxophone on Yellowjackets’ Greenhouse album, he thought he was going out there as a guest musician. With a young family back in New York, the already well-travelled Mintzer’s plan was to spend more time at home. The plan changed.

Almost twenty-five years on, Mintzer is still a Yellowjacket and although teaching commitments prevented him from joining this most enduring of jazz fusion bands on its Scottish tour last year, he is the ideal representative to guest in the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s celebration this weekend of Yellowjackets’ music.

Indeed, with a background in orchestral jazz that includes touring with both a previous recipient of a SNJO tribute, legendary drummer Buddy Rich, and the subject of the orchestra’s next celebration, the equally legendary bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius, as well as considerable experience in writing for his own big band, Mintzer is uniquely placed to front SNJO as soloist and arranger.

“We’ll be playing a number of Yellowjackets tunes that I’ve written and arranged and a couple of Russell Ferrante, Yellowjackets’ founder-keyboardist’s tunes,” he says. “The idea was to give a broad perspective of styles because Yellowjackets have been a working band for thirty-three years now and the way the band operates – the music is fashioned by committee, we all write and we all have a say in how a piece should sound – reflects the different influences that have informed the music and has contributed to that longevity in a big way. It’s a democracy that works very smoothly.”

Mintzer’s experiences with Buddy Rich were probably the polar opposite of Yellowjackets’ modus operandi. As a young saxophonist who, in 1973, had moved from The Hartt School in Connecticut to Manhattan School of Music on the advice of his mentor, alto saxophonist Jackie Maclean, Mintzer was able to take advantage of the opportunities to play in big bands that were open at the time but would presently diminish.

“I’d listened to Count Basie, Duke Ellington and the great albums Miles Davis made with Gil Evans but my main focus as a young player was on small group jazz; John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Dexter Gordon were my favourites,” he says. “But back in the early 1970s you could get a job with a top big band – Maynard Ferguson, Thad Jones & Mel Lewis, Woody Herman, Gil Evans had a band – and I grew into it with Buddy Rich.”

With Rich, Mintzer was able to write an arrangement and have it played on the band stand by a band playing at the top of its game that same night with a drummer who remains the best Mintzer has ever played with. It was priceless training because he learned very quickly what worked and what didn’t work and as well as writing, playing with Rich, who was famously demanding but also highly intuitive and musically aware, made Mintzer and his bandmates want to improve all the time. So much so that after every concert, no matter where in the world they were on a schedule that only allowed two weeks off a year, he and a group of others would seek out the nearest jam session because they were so eager to play.

Mintzer went on to play with Latin American and salsa bands led by Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and Mongo Santamaria and with the Brazilian bandleader Eumir Deodato. He wrote for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and as a busy New York studio musician he played sessions for Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, Diana Ross and Queen, among many others. Just reading his CV, recording and writing history and current activities can bring on exhaustion.

“I do seem to thrive on activity,” he says, speaking from his hotel room in Washington DC, where he’ll be playing a concert with Yellowjackets later. “It’s really down to the fact that I truly enjoy music and I’ve always enjoyed the prospect of learning more and getting better. It has a snowball effect but it feels good.”

Playing with Jaco Pastorius also felt good. The Floridian, who revolutionised the bass guitar and in making his breakthrough with jazz-fusion heavyweights Weather Report managed to bring his instrument into the frontline while simultaneously propelling the music with an unstoppable momentum, ran a big band, the Word of Mouth Orchestra that Mintzer likens to a runaway train.

“It was challenging and a real jazz band in that there wasn’t a lot of instruction,” says Mintzer. “You just had to hop on that train and figure it out as you went along. But Jaco was an amazing musician, a visionary of sorts and because there was no chord instrument, no piano or guitar, you could go off in pretty much any direction. It was fun.”


From The Herald, September 26, 2014.

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