In 1977, Robben Ford assembled a group of veteran session musicians to record his album The Inside Story. The trio of musicians, which included keyboardist Russell Ferrante, bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Ricky Lawson, soon discovered a certain “chemistry” and musical affinity that led to their formation of Yellowjackets. The Inside Story being mainly instrumental, Robben Ford’s record label wanted him to record another album that was more pop and vocal oriented. The group, known as the Robben Ford Group, preferred to pursue the instrumental route, and a “band within a band” was formed. This same group with Robben Ford on guitar recorded digital demos that were eventually accepted by Warner Brothers, and Yellowjackets was born. While Robben’s contributions would diminish over the years to being a guest artist, the group known as Yellowjackets would flourish.
Their debut album Yellowjackets made serious waves in jazz radio, garnering public and critical acclaim. Mirage A Trois followed in its footsteps. While they went on a brief hiatus to pursue other projects, they reassembled in time for the 1984 Playboy Jazz Festival, adding percussionist Paulinho Da Costa and their new lead voice, sax man Marc Russo. This landmark concert paved the way for their eventual success both on the Billboard Jazz charts and concert venues around the world, and resulted in the third spicy Yellowjackets album Samurai Samba. The group moved over to MCA Records in1986 to record Shades, the title track being written by Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan fame) as a tribute to the many “shades” he heard in the group’s music.
With their album Four Corners, Ricky Lawson departed to join Lionel Richie’s touring band and was replaced by the versatile William Kennedy. This rock-solid lineup took the Yellowjackets into new territory, exploring world beats and densely-populated soundscapes that reflected a growing maturity in their music. CloudjacketsPolitics, the follow-up to Four Corners, mellows out, and the group sheds some of the electronic elements and starts exploring acoustic sounds. Marc Russo’s final recording with Yellowjackets, The Spin, was recorded in Oslo, Norway by noted engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug (well known for his work on the ECM label), and the Jackets proved that they could belt out acoustic jazz with the best!
Greenhouse ushered in a new era. With Marc gone, the Yellowjackets trio would record one of their most adventurous albums to date, featuring ace big band arranger and saxophonist Bob Mintzer on many of the tracks, and string accompaniments on a handful of others. Shortly thereafter, Bob Mintzer became a bona fide member of Yellowjackets. The Jackets also recorded on one of Bob Mintzer’s dmp Records projects, One Music. Live Wires captures the group in concert with Mintzer at the helm. The two albums that followed, Like a River and Run For Your Life, reflected a growing interest in straight-ahead acoustic jazz.
With 1995’s Dreamland, Yellowjackets returned to their first record label, Warner Brothers, producing their most relaxed, and relaxing, recording to date. Blue Hats is more spontaneous than its predecessors, musically rich and particularly revealing in showing how Yellowjackets has evolved since that landmark first album. Club Nocturne achieves great crossover appeal with the guest vocalists Kurt Elling, Jonathan Butler and Brenda Russell. And while the Yellowjackets of today sound little like the original Yellowjackets from thirty years ago at first listen, the unmistakable talents of the individuals involved still have the unique signatures that shine through regardless of their musical setting, whether it be blistering-hot fusion or full-blown acoustic jazz. In other words, their music has evolved and matured considerably, but there’s no mistaking that it is Yellowjackets you are hearing.
At the beginning of 1999, William Kennedy departed Yellowjackets to pursue other interests, and Peter Erskine joined the group for the balance of the year. Peter had played with Bob Mintzer on some of his big-band and small group recordings, so it was a natural that he would become one of the Yellowjackets. Unfortunately, Erskine’s busy schedule would conflict with the band’s, and he would depart by year’s end without ever having recorded an album with the group.
In early 2000, the Yellowjackets were once again a trio, with Russell, Jimmy and Bob using different drummers as they continue touring throughout the year. Two of the fine drummers they’ve hooked up with were Marcus Baylor and Terri Lynn Carrington. For 2000, the band also saw a change in management, and Jimmy’s long-awaited (and long-delayed) solo recording, Red Heat, was released later in the summer.
In 2001, the band self-released the pivotal live “Mint Jam” recording, with Marcus Baylor now essentially the band’s full-time drummer. Since that time, the Jackets signed a deal with the HeadsUp International label, and have since released Time Squared, the holiday release Peace Round, Altered State, and most recently, Timeline (2011), which is the Yellowjacket’s 21st release.
Timeline begins with the seriously hip “Why Is It”, marked by the swarming harmonies of Mintzer’s bass clarinet and Ferrante’s keyboards, held together by the glutinous rhythm section of Haslip and the pulsating traps of drummer Will Kennedy, who joined the band in 1986, but left after fifteen years, only to reunite with the group again in 2010. The signature sound is still intact - one that helped to define the better qualities of contemporary jazz - music that is artistic, played to the hilt, and yet remains accessible to wider audiences. Whether pumping up the groove in Mintzer’s “Tenacity”, laying down a chamber music vibe in Ferrante’s “Indivisible”, or paying respect to the great Elvin Jones with guest trumpeter John Daversa in “Like Elvin”. The set showcases the band’s depth and insightful nature.
A bluesman at heart, Ford makes a guest appearance in “Magnolia”, bringing back pleasant memories with some dirty wah-wah effects. There may be room for a little nostalgia, but after thirty years, the ‘Jackets have accomplished the damn-near impossible, by staying together and continuing to deliver good music.