Posted by: russdavis | March 3, 2011

Yellowjackets @ 30…Timeline CD Celebrates!

Hanging with the 'Jackets at the Detroit Jazz Fest!

I was honored to be asked to write the liner notes for the wonderful CD Timeline by the supergroup of Modern Jazz, Yellowjackets.  You’ll be hearing tons of this release on MOJA Radio and I wanted to post the liner notes that appear in the album package so you’ll see for yourself what I think of this incredible group of musicians who have kept a flame burning brightly for THREE DECADES AND COUNTING!!!! Congrats to the MIGHTY JACKETS!!!!  Russ Davis


As you’re reading this you are most likely holding a copy of TIMELINE, the 21st release in the incredible 30-year career of Yellowjackets, one of the most popular and enduring groups in jazz history!  30 years…think about that.  In this day of disposable products how could anything last for three decades? As for the ‘Jackets, the reasons seem obvious…music of the highest quality, well written, well played and well produced. And their music, though certainly consistent, has undergone constant evolutionary change. With each stylistic change they’ve added another facet to the beautiful jewel that is the music of Yellowjackets.  But I believe there is one major reason for the longevity of this great group and that is the spirit of this band. It all starts with the two founding fathers of the group, keyboardist Russell Ferrante and bassist Jimmy Haslip. As well as being great musicians, they are simply two of the finest people you are ever likely to meet.  I believe Russ and Jim embody this strong, positive spirit that is Yellowjackets. The spirit is there when you listen to their recordings and see them live.  In a world that sometimes seems too dark and cold the ‘Jackets bring light and warmth, and it’s always great to stand next to their fire.

I remember telling Russell and Jimmy that when the first album, “Yellowjackets,” was released I thought it was a great name for a blues band.  Of course the band famously began life working with blues-rock guitarist Robben Ford. No doubt, blues and rock have been a big part of Yellowjackets’ music from the beginning. That first release came at the end of the jazz-fusion era and established the band as a player in that movement.

With the 1980’s came “Contemporary Jazz,” and the Yellowjackets helped define the genre. The lineup consisted of Russell, Jimmy, drummer Ricky Lawson, who’d played with artists as diverse as Smokey Robinson, The Jackson 5, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Roy Ayers, plus spirited and talented saxophonist Marc Russo, who joined on their third release “Samurai Samba.” Their blend of blues, rock, gospel, jazz, soul and funk yielded a Grammy award in the “Best R & B Instrumental Performance” category for the 1986 release “Shades.” So were they a blues/rock/gospel/jazz/soul/funk/instrumental r&b band?  Well, yes, and no.

In 1987 the band made one of the boldest and bravest moves any artist ever has with the release of the album “Four Corners,” in my opinion one of the greatest works of the decade in jazz.  It ushered in the first “Will Kennedy” era with Yellowjackets as Will became the powerful, new drummer replacing Ricky Lawson. With its more adventurous compositions, African poly-rhythmic sensibilities and intriguing electro-acoustic approach, this album confounded critics who might have placed the ‘Jackets in a box. In 1988 they won their second Grammy award for “Politics,” and though their sound and style were well established by this time they still served notice that more changes were on the way.

A new face showed up at Yellowjackets sessions.  Over the years there had been any number of special guest players and singers but when Bob Mintzer performed on the 1990 release “Greenhouse” something significant occurred.  Mark Russo had left, and the saxophone seat was open.  As Bob Mintzer told me in an interview when I mentioned that the band really wanted him to join, his enthusiastic answer was “I wanted them too!” That was 20 years ago!  To me, Bob Mintzer filled the void in modern jazz left when Michael Brecker died.  A master of tenor and electronic wind instrument, Bob also brings incredible composing and arranging skills and a serious connection to straight ahead jazz that added a new arrow to the Yellowjackets’ quiver.

When Will Kennedy decided to leave the band, Yellowjackets added another talented musician with skill and spirit, Marcus Baylor, who occupied the drum chair for most of the first decade of the 21st century. His time with the band saw a number of brilliant live and studio efforts, a grand celebration of a quarter century of work including a triumphant world tour and the album “25,” their first Christmas recording “Peace Round” and a splendid collaboration with old friend, guitarist Mike Stern, on the album “Lifecycle.”

Now 2011 gives us “Timeline.”  The second Will Kennedy era has begun and all seems right in Jacket Town with his return. I remember standing under the clear Detroit sky on a cool evening and talking to Will after the bands’ brilliant performance at the Detroit Jazz Fest.  As we talked about his return to the ‘Jackets, his eyes were gleaming and his energy and excitement at being back were obvious, as obvious as his enormous contribution to the band. Just as Will and I were talking, appropriately enough, fireworks filled the sky.  The musical fireworks created by this powerful quartet are there for all to hear on “Timeline.” This collection exhibits all the band has to offer, that familiar ‘Jackets groove on tunes like “Why Is It” and “Tenacity,” gospel overtones on “Magnolia,” electric be-bop with “Like Elvin,” and “Numerology,” and more.

Yellowjackets on stage playing tunes from TIMELINE!

I’ve seen this band in little jazz joints and grand concert halls, under a steamy tent in New Orleans and outdoors in Detroit. Each time something has been consistent.  The band is always smiling and confident as they serve up the tunes, and the crowd is always joyous as they soak up that warm, wonderful spirit that only Yellowjackets’ music can conjure, just as it’s been for 30 years and counting!


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