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The week's most popular smooth jazz songs...July 20, 2013
Can't We Elope
"A Rise in the Road"
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Review by: Tracey Whitney
The Yellowjackes Interview & Concert Review
I sat down with the Yellowjackets saxophonist Bob Mintzer and drummer William Kennedy during a VIP reception prior to their concert at The Hiland Theater in Albuquerque, NM. They, along with fellow Yellowjackets members Russell Ferrante and Felix Pastorius, were in town to kick off the 3-day Route 66 Summerfest (part of the 2 week long New Mexico Jazz Festival).
SJM: Congratulations on your 22nd CD, “A Rise In The Road.” I just love what I’ve heard so far! I know there have been many personnel changes throughout the years, but can you tell me what you attribute the bands staying power to? You guys have been together in some form or another for 32 years.
William: We love what we do! As a musician, I think it’s very important to be enthusiastic about your vocation, and it really helps to have a passion for music. We’re very fortunate and privileged to be in a band like this, where we can, on average, do a CD and tour once a year. There are a lot of musicians out there who don’t have that opportunity.
Bob: I think another aspect that has contributed to the band’s longevity is there is no “leader.” Everyone is an equal partner, and welcome to contribute at all levels. So you really wind up having a stake in a band like this. It’s very compelling and very unusual.
SJM: How has the departure of Jimmy Haslip, one of your founding members, affected the personality of the music you’re doing now? And how has the addition of Felix Pastorius (the son of legendary bassist Jaco) influenced that sound?
William: Any adjustment in a family (like we are) is major. And there are even some gigs where we periodically have to sub the position out. That’s an adjustment, because we live and breathe together on stage, and there’s a flow that occurs during a performance that makes that performance! So when you switch a member it’s a big thing.
SJM: Especially a founding member…
William: Jimmy left a really big footprint. He’s a founding member, and a really great musician. His confidence on his instrument was really great for this band. But we did some auditioning and landed with Felix. He has a voice that is very strong, and he’s just a great fit as a musician and as a person. He’s been welcomed into the family, and it’s been a great addition.
Bob: Yeah, that about sums it up…
SJM: Speaking of Felix, there must have been a stampede at your door when Jimmy left the band. Why him, and what do you feel is his biggest contribution so far?
William: It wasn’t a stampede/cattle call because we didn’t introduce it like that. There were select musicians that we knew about and we called them in. Felix was one of the guys who just stood out, and we saw it as a great story as well. He has the last name of Pastorius. There’s some history with Bob and Jaco (his father), and Bob can elaborate on that, but we needed somebody that could confidently cover the music - because it’s not an easy chair. It’s not an easy position to just jump in, but Felix just fit.
Bob: Like Will said, I’d played with Jaco in the early 80’s, so that kind of added another dimension to the prospect of playing with Felix. But essentially, he sounded and felt good with the band, and also had a personality that we thought would work well.
SJM: I understand he used his dad’s bass (now owned by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo) to record on this CD. That must have been thrilling for him. This may be a little esoteric (that’s just the way I process), but do you think Jaco’s bass held memories - like a muscle - and naturally returned to where it left off?
William: (Laughs) Well, I’ll say this; when we were first plugging the bass in and getting a sound on it, there was a character or sound in the instrument that we instantly recognized…
Bob: (Laughing) Yeah, that’s what I thought.
SJM: Exactly! Do you think playing it inspired Felix?
William: There’s an interesting challenge in having the last name of Pastorius and playing the same instrument. You could easily be pegged as “Jaco’s son,” but Felix has a voice and sound all his own, and that’s one of the really great things about him.
SJM: Can you tell me about the process behind recording “A Rise In The Road?” First off, what’s the meaning behind that title?
Bob: I think Russell (Ferrante) came up with that title. Russ rides a bicycle almost every day, and I think this title came to him when he was going up hill, and you know, there’s a certain level of resistance when you go up hill on a bicycle. And he made this analogy to being in a band for a prolonged period of time, and having some level of resistance – say personnel changes or whatever – and weathering that resistance. Its about getting through it, and getting to the other side where you either wind up back on level ground, or you wind up going back down hill again. It seemed like an appropriate title for a band that’s been around as long as we have. It had some roots to it.
William: And we had the opportunity to contribute some fresh new songs - that was the whole idea. We’re very excited about melodic content. We like the fact that we can put a tune together with memorable melodies. It’s not about the flailing chops or how loud it’s getting. The objective when we write songs is to make a statement; to make a contribution to our industry, and “A Rise In The Road” really followed that path…
SJM: I understand you choose your songs by committee. How does that work?
William: Well, we’re all composers and everyone comes in with either a demo or something already written out. So, we just throw all our songs in the pot, and then we pick and choose which ones fit well together. We typically write maybe four or five tunes too many, and then go down the list trying them all on…
Bob: That’s exactly it. Again, we’re a democratic band so everyone partakes in the final decision as to what songs work best. And then the process continues. One person may have written a tune and they hand it over to the band. Then everyone does a little homework on it, and interprets the song the way they will. And when we start playing it together, even more ideas pop up. Everyone has input, so the song kind of takes on this other momentum that’s far larger than the initial intent of the one composer; now there’s four cooks stirring the pot.
William: It’s an interesting thing though. What Bob is alluding to is that the recording is kind of a “snap shot” of where the songs are at that moment, but they continue to evolve as we play them on tours and such.
SJM: Tell me about your collaboration with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. I loved his work on “An Informed Decision.”
William: Again, one of Russ’ compositions, and I believe it was his idea to have another voice on the record. Ambrose is another one of the talented musicians who’s actually teaching at USC, where Bob and Russ are also professors.
Bob: Ambrose is a very gifted, energetic new trumpet phenomenon on the scene, and since we’re all there at USC, it seemed like a natural choice…
SJM: Wait, Ndugu Chancler (jazz funk drummer, percussionist) is also teaching there, right? He’s a very good friend of mine. Wow, happy family!
Bob: Yeah, he is!
William: Oh, Amen…
SJM: “Can’t We Elope” is a play off of Herbie Hancock’s famed “Cantaloupe Island.” How did that come about?
William: It’s difficult to elaborate on that because it’s Russ’s song, and we weren’t really involved in the composition. But of course, Herbie Hancock is an incredible inspiration for all musicians (as he should be). We love him dearly.
Bob: And we love “Cantaloupe Island…”
William: It’s kind of funny that the song is experiencing the success that it is. The single has just been exploding on Smooth Jazz radio, and we’re all very thankful about that!
Bob: And it’s a catchy tune - it’s got a really nice beat and a nice arrangement.
William: (Laughs) So I guess its kind of side homage to Herbie Hancock!
SJM: I really enjoyed “When The Lady Dances.” What was the inspiration behind that composition?
Bob: My wife! She’s a dancer. She’s somewhat of a measuring stick; if we’re playing and she’s dancing that’s generally a good indication that the music is swinging. If she’s not dancing that means that something’s a little bit askew…
SJM: Explain the sentiment behind “I Knew His Father.” What a wonderful welcome that must have been for Felix.
William: This is a special recording for him. Not only did he have the opportunity to play his father’s bass, just being in this band is a great opportunity for him - this band is a blessing for all of us! But for an up-and-coming 31-year-old bass player, it’s really cool. It has been challenging for him musically though, because we’re an organization that’s been ongoing for 30-plus years.
SJM: He gets to walk with giants! I mean; how crazy is that at 31? Is there anything you specifically want to share with your fans about “A Rise In The Road?”
Bob: (Laughs) Its Available! I think what I’d like our fans to know is that we’re not resting on any laurels. We’re all very dedicated and hard working musicians, and we pride ourselves on growing and expanding individually and collectively. We keep moving outward…
The Yellowjackets – A Rise In The Road
The Albuquerque Route 66 Summerfest/New Mexico Jazz Festival
There’s a lot to be said about the ability to weather storms, be they natural or man-made. Case in point: In Albuquerque, NM, Mother Nature announced herself in spectacular fashion today with one of the biggest storms of the season. I’m talking monsoon rains, HAIL (yes, hail in July), and floods in the metro, with thunder and lightening storms galore. Two large shade trees next to my building were completely uprooted. Bam. And just like that, gone.
And then there are the man-made tempests that swirl you dizzyingly around, shaking your world upside down. I imagine that’s how the member of the Yellowjackets felt last year… Throughout their storied 33-year history, the Yellowjackets have undergone numerous lineup changes, never failing to rise to the inevitable challenges of adjustment. But last year bassist Jimmy Haslip, a founding member with pianist Russell Ferrante, departed - leaving the band without their cornerstone, and some might have imagined – a lot of its heart. I say “imagined” because the reality is that with “A Rise In The Road” the Yellowjackets introduced a new member, bassist Felix Pastorius (yes, son of the late, great JACO), who stepped into the empty space, and brought with him not just a legacy, but a singular sound worthy of his new position. Jimmy Haslip’s place in the band’s history will always be secure - he can no more be replaced than King, your favorite dog growing up. But what Felix can, and undoubtedly will do, is carve his own path, and make his own history.
Back to the future: Two hours until show time at the Hiland Theater, and the weather was still so intense, I was wondering if I’d even make it there in time for my band interview. And again, just like that the Heavens opened up…
Before I forget to mention it, New Mexican’s LOVE their jazz! Tom Guralnick (the founder and director of The Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque’s premier locale for Jazz, and along with the city of ABQ and Santa Fe, is also responsible for producing the annual New Mexico Jazz Festival) introduced the band – pianist Russ Ferrante, tenor and soprano saxophonist, Bob Mintzer, drummer William Kennedy - and newly minted bassist, Felix Pastorius - to a packed house of screaming fans.
The 50-minute set began with a rousing rendition of “Spirit of the West,” from 98’s Grammy® nominated “Club Nocturne.” Followed by “The Red Sea” from ‘94’s “Run for Your Life,” a classic Yellowjackets fusion piece with a mixture of super funky syncopated rhythms that kept Pastorius and Kennedy on their toes (and laughing at one another), while Mintzer’s solo took the audience to dizzying heights.
The band then settled into showcasing their new CD, “A Rise In The Road,” starting out with “When The Lady Dances,” a lush Bebop’ish serenade to Bob Mintzer’s wife that had the audience swinging, and Mintzer and Ferrante traded off exquisite, finger-flying solos throughout. Next up, drummer Kennedy’s composition, “Madrugada” was a chance for he and Ferrante to truly feed off of one another. The beauty of any long-tern relationship is that you begin to communicate without speaking, and this is so true of these two. Throughout the set, I was struck by how they maintain the balance of the band while Mintzer takes flight on his saxophone. “Amber Shade of Blue” (which features guest trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire on the CD) is another classic Bebop style jam, with a fierce solo from Pastorius, whose rhythms were only matched by his enthusiastic delivery. The entire band seemed to give in to the moment, and they just let her rip… Did I mention New Mexico jazz fans? They went Caaa-razy!!
“Geraldine,” a tune dedicated to Ferrante’s wife, allowed us to finally catch our collective breaths. Beginning with Mintzer’s sax, it melts into a delicate and melodic love call from Ferrante. Kennedy is a truly glorious drummer - one who has mastered the art of being omnipresent, without being overbearing, and his work on Geraldine was sublime.
When introducing the next song “Tenacity” (a straight-ahead jazz ditty, featuring an awesome drum-piano collaboration), Bob tells the audience, “We’re going to go back to our last CD, “Timeline;” a pretty good description of the band and where we are now. We just keep going, because honestly, we don’t know what else to do…” Indeed.
“Why Is It” was smoking hot out the gate, with a sax and drum battle royale! And Ferrante’s fingers glided across keys like a bat out of hell, with Pastorius fast on his heels…or would that be wings? Well, you get the picture…
After much coaxing, we were treated to a grand finale of the Gospel infused “Revelation,” from their ’96 Grammy® Award winning album, “Shades.” Russ, Bob, Will and Felix took us to church! And speaking of Felix Pastorius: I’m happy to report he’s proven himself to be an extremely gifted young pup -- quite capable of running with these big dogs! His playing is relaxed – yet immensely driven, with soaring solos even his father would be proud of. He smiles and connects, and you can see why he was chosen. He just “fits.”
And that’s the thing about storms. With all their dramatic twists and turns, the Yellowjackets remain who they always were, outwardly unscathed by life’s little flurries - no doubt preparing to move seamlessly into the next decade. And for this audience (did I mention New Mexican’s LOVE their Jazz?) they were a little slice of paradise…