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Yellowjackets’ Bob Mintzer talks bands past, present, future

Harrison Weinstein
Harrison Weinstein

Legendary jazz fusion outfit Yellowjackets will close out the 2023 Wichita Jazz Festival with a performance at the Crown Uptown on Saturday.

Legendary jazz fusion outfit Yellowjackets will close out the 2023 Wichita Jazz Festival with a performance at the Crown Uptown on Saturday.

Formed in late 1970s Los Angeles, the group released a series of highly influential LPs, including the 1981 self-titled recording and 1983’s “Mirage a Trois.” Unlike some of their contemporaries, Yellowjackets have never had a major pause in their recording activity and have already released two LPs this decade, including 2020’s “Jackets XL” and 2022’s “Parallel Motion,” which garnered the quartet a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Jazz Album.

Today, the band consists of co-founder Russell Ferrante, saxophonist Bob Mintzer, who has been a central member of the band since the 1990s, bassist Dane Alderson, and drummer William Kennedy, who has served two tenures with the band: He first joined in 1987, left in 1999 and returned in 2010.

Mintzer recently spoke with KMUW from his home in Los Angeles about the group’s history, “Parallel Motion” and why jazz music continues to be a vital force in the world.

Interview Highlights

I wondered if we could talk for just a moment about the specific stream of jazz that Yellowjackets first emerged from. 

I would say that the band initially had more of an R&B based sound. Over time that started to evolve and the music began to incorporate different styles: Straight ahead music, African music, Brazilian and even classical music. Everyone in the band is interested in listening to all different kinds of music. Inevitably that has an influence on what we bring to the table. That’s all impacted the composing and the playing. When I came in in 1990 there was a major shift in progress. The music broadened and went to some new places. We have become a little more of an acoustic group. In the past there was more synthesizer, sequenced tracks that we used to play along with. A lot of that has gone away.

Was some of that leaving behind of sequencing and the latest electronics influenced by the idea that at some point it can become more about programming than playing? 

The mode of communication among the four of us became such that there was a little more intimacy without so much electronics. We still use them. There’s definitely a way to use technology to support whatever it is you’re doing. Then there’s the travel aspect of it; The band used to travel with loads of gear. It was not cost effective and was very cumbersome. Now we travel basically as an acoustic jazz quartet. That really facilitates the way we want to play and relate to one another in live settings.

What kind of conversations did you have about the record you wanted to make with “Parallel Motion,” if any? 

We consider what the four of us do and have been doing and we use that as a guide to where we might go musically. It’s four people hopefully heading in the right direction but parallel to one another and we come up with this music that I think after all these years — and we’re talking 42 years now as an ensemble — there’s a very distinctive sound and approach that’s based around how we relate musically to one another. Frequently I’m asked, “Oh, you’re in the Yellowjackets. What kind of music do you play?” It’s very difficult to answer that. My answer ends up being, “Well, we play the Yellowjackets music,” which is something that has developed in sound and concept over time and that’s distinctive and identifiable.

I wanted to talk about the piece “Challenging Times” from “Parallel Motion,” which I absolutely love. There’s something fascinating about the way that piece moves. 

That’s a Russ Ferrante composition. Russ has a very particular way of composing and using rhythm and melody and it’s just a brilliant piece of music that, like the title suggests, does some very challenging things time-wise. [It] allows you to tape your foot but also appreciate the complexity and amazing structure [of the piece].

Is that one of the pleasures of being in this band, that you’re kept on your toes in terms of the compositions? 

Absolutely. That’s one of the real identifying aspects of the Yellowjackets. Whereas more traditional jazz groups maybe have a larger percentage of improvisation versus composition, in the Yellowjackets there’s a good amount of composition as well as improvisation. The compositional part is very challenging and very comprehensive. It’s not stuff that you can just jump up and play. It requires a good deal of work and practice and coordination to get all this music to work. I think “Challenging Times” is a very good example of that.

I also love “Onyx Manor.” It’s a piece that understands tradition while also moving the music forward. 

That was composed by our bassist Dane Alderson, who comes from a different place than the [other] three of us. I think his background was more in rock ‘n’ roll music, heavy metal even. That’s not to say that he isn’t aware of the more traditional jazz elements as well. He spent six years touring with James Morrison, the very fantastic Australian [trumpeter]. That tune reflects Dane’s take on composition and playing but that in conjunction with Dane’s interpretation of his piece. Dane’s tunes have been a real departure from what the Yellowjackets typically do, so that’s been interesting and challenging. One of the things to consider is [that] there is no leader in this band so we all have equal say, equal participation in terms of composition, decision-making, all that. Dane’s additions have been interesting and challenging for all of us.

It seems like there’s more emphasis on jazz pedagogy than there was 40 years ago. 

I’ve been teaching for a long time. I taught at Manhattan School of Music for over 20 years. I’ve been at USC Thornton School of Music for 15 years. Pedagogy has certainly emerged and expanded greatly. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I think there’s a lot of things right with it. I think it’s facilitated jazz music becoming a classical art form. But for one to be a jazz player you got to get out there and play. I think the major difference between when I was in my formative years what happens now is that we learned how to play in bands. There were a lot of opportunities to play and tour. I played with the Buddy Rich band for two-and-a-half years and played in several other big bands and got to play regularly in New York. While those opportunities do exist, I think they were a little more structured back in the ‘70s when I came up.

We’ve lost some great jazz players so far this year, including Ahmad Jamal and Wayne Shorter. Do you have any thoughts on those players or that generation of players that is now leaving us? 

They paved the way for what was to come. Wayne Shorter in particular. He was a journeyman. He was a courageous artist. A really interesting conceptualist. He was an incredible musician, so well-versed, a wonderful thinker and fantasizer.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.