Yellowjackets Team Up with Luciana Souza

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Will Kennedy (left), Russell Ferrante, Luciana Souza, Bob Mintzer and Dane Alderson collaborated on the album Raising Our Voice.

(Photo: Anna Webber)

Since the release of Yellowjackets’ self-titled debut in 1981, the band has released about three chart-topping excursions per decade. Along the way, the band has developed a large fan base, while undergoing some lineup changes. Keyboardist and co-founder Russell Ferrante has been a constant presence, with saxophonist Bob Mintzer (who replaced Mark Russo in 1990) being the second-longest tenured member. Drummer Will Kennedy has played with the group for more than 20 non-

sequential years. When the quartet’s current bassist, Dane Alderson, was born, Yellowjackets was already recording its third album.

Raising Our Voice (Mack Avenue), Yellowjackets’ 24th album, is Alderson’s second studio appearance with the band, bringing a youthful vibrancy to the workhorse ensemble. But the biggest change is guest vocalist Luciana Souza, who stretches the band out with a compelling, earthy vibe. Souza contributes to more than half the album, but that feel for the organic presides over the whole affair. The result is a revitalizing project for everyone involved.

When Ferrante recently spoke with DownBeat, he was enjoying the waning days of summer before returning to his teaching gig at the University of Southern California. “What remains as challenging as ever is coming up with music that we feel shows some kind of progression—not just recycling and rehashing what we have done in the past,” he said. “The challenge is to find new things and keep the music invigorated.”

Souza and Ferrante both live in Los Angeles. Through management connections, the two paired up to test the waters. They passed melodic missives back and forth for a while before Ferrante decided to have her join the band on its next session. Yellowjackets occasionally have worked with vocalists—including Kurt Elling and Bobby McFerrin—but Souza’s work with the band went deeper.

From the first note of Raising Our Voice, the band is charged with a sense of exploration, revisiting “Man Facing North,” the tune that opened its 1993 album, Like A River. Souza offers wordless flights atop Ferrante’s patient support before Mintzer enters with authoritative, yet tender, lines on tenor saxophone. Unlike the original version, the synths have been ditched in favor of a more acoustic vibe, and the band rides effortlessly on that unplugged interplay.

Ferrante and Souza collaborated on two songs for the album, the peace-affirming “Quiet” and “Solitude.” On the former, Souza shifts from Portuguese to English into a delicate ballad with plaintive tones from Mintzer, filling the gaps with a languid touch. The latter song closes the album, a slow build that finds Mintzer and Souza rising over the churning rhythm section.

“I collaborate with a lot of dead poets,” Souza joked. “It’s not something that feels very natural to me. I give and I take; I work on my own. When I collaborate with my husband, [producer Larry Klein] I ask, ‘Can you work on this for me?’ But it’s usually more like an assignment. With Yellowjackets, it felt very organic. They are all brilliant writers, and they have a beautiful rapport together. It’s joyous. They love seeing what comes up. That’s probably why they’ve been together so long.”

After 40 years as a band, it can be hard to keep things interesting. On this go-round, spontaneity in the presence of a guest seemed to spur everybody on. “Most of the time, we’ll have everything really spelled out and clearly written and arranged beforehand, so when we go into the studio, we’re just trying to capture a live performance,” Ferrante said. “For this recording, since we hadn’t previously worked with Luciana, we had no time to meet and work on the music prior to arriving at the studio. We started adding things once we got a feeling for how it was working. How will these pieces unfold? The ideas we thought were going to work, sometimes they didn’t. But the overarching feeling by everyone was ‘Wow, this is really working.’ You don’t know until you’re making the music.”

Elsewhere, Alderson flexes his composing muscles with the rumbling “Brotherly,” which keeps the tempo popping. Mintzer’s “Swing With It” is as straightahead as the program gets, with the composer delivering the song’s angular melody before his bandmates take turns dishing out a dollops of four-to-the-bar swing.

Walking into the middle of a band with so much history, Souza is consciously democratic in her approach. “I try to observe a lot and see where I fit,” she said. “The voice is there for a reason. I’m not needed to expose the melody or find the groove. The music already exists. I’m an added color.” Like a hawk circling her prey, Souza is patient, flying in an ever tightening circle as she ponders her next opportunity: “A lot of the time I spend in a quiet corner. ‘Should I really add something?’ They are brilliant improvisers. I am not. So, what can I contribute? If nothing, then silence.” DB



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