Yellowjackets Blindfold Test


​From left: Will Kennedy, Russell Ferrante, Dane Alderson and Bob Mintzer

(Photo: Roberto Cifarelli)

To celebrate the 45th anniversary of Yellowjackets, the group made its latest album, Parallel Motion (Mack Avenue), an all-hands-on-deck affair. The 55-minute recital consists of three compositions apiece by pianist and group co-founder Russell Ferrante and saxophonist-arranger Bob Mintzer, a member since 1990; two by bassist Dane Alderson, who joined in 2015; and one by Will Kennedy, who rejoined Yellowjackets in 2010 after holding the drum chair from 1987 to 1999. In keeping with the collective concept, the group requested to be Blindfolded together via Zoom, with the encounter taking place in June on the final day of a coast-to-coast U.S tour. Ensconced in their respective hotel rooms, the four listened and responded to repertoire representing many other long-standing units. This Blindfold Test was presented in two parts in the September 2022 and October 2022 issues of DownBeat. The conversation has been edited for space and clarity considerations.

Branford Marsalis Quartet

“Lykief” (Requiem, Sony, 1999) Branford Marsalis, soprano saxophone; Kenny Kirkland, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums.

Russell Ferrante: Obviously someone really influenced by Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet, that sensibility, with Jan Garbarek and those guys. I’ll take a wild guess — Oregon? All the playing was stellar. The saxophonist had a beautiful sound, great command of the instrument. Along with the free stuff, there were these funny, like, blues licks that came a bit out of left field — but fit the character of the song. I loved that it was so loose and they were just going for it.

Bob Mintzer: I concur with Russ. Soprano sometimes can have little tuning issues. But this guy had a serious command, and a broad approach that went from almost a classical style to bluesy to out-there. Same with the piano player. It sounded to me like a Keith Jarrett group, but I couldn’t figure. ... It may have been early-on Garbarek, but Jan sounds different than that. I thought maybe Dewey Redman. But then again, I thought it could be Paul Bley or somebody like that. There were even little smatterings of Cecil Taylor, but it wasn’t out enough for that. I’m stumped. But I really enjoyed it, and particularly the arc — the way it started, subdued and transparent, and then picked up in activity and intensity and got into this free thing, and then returned to almost a reinstatement of that initial theme, where they played the ballad segment.

Will Kennedy: It sounds like a mildly contemporary recording. I’m thinking of which players can command the soprano saxophone like that.

Kennedy: I would throw Branford Marsalis into the mix, with the classical and bluesy or jazz influence; the quality of the recording; and obviously the musicianship is incredible. We may not have done this free, non-pocket or non-groove-tempo approach to a song on any of our recordings. It was fantastic. I’d throw Branford in there.

DownBeat: It was Branford’s quartet in 1998. It’s Branford’s piece, and it’s called “Lykief.”

Kennedy: It’s not easy for a drummer to express yourself freely that way. Drummers in general are initially trained to be with the time. This free expression thing is everything that you know, everything that’s in your heart. Tonally, that’s “Tain”’s voice. The ability to grab everything, from a rudimental standpoint to the qualities of that swingy jazz drumming style — it’s all there. And the quality of sound is stellar. 5 stars.

Group: Unanimous, 5 stars.

Joe Henderson

“Old Slippers” (Black Miracle, Milestone, 1975) Joe Henderson, tenor saxophone; “Dawilli Gonga” (George Duke), keyboards; Lee Ritenour, guitar; Ron Carter, electric bass; Harvey Mason, drums; Bill Summers, percussion; Oscar Brashear, Snooky Young, trumpet, flugelhorn; Don Waldrop, bass trombone, tuba; Hadley Caliman, flute, tenor saxophone.

Mintzer: Joe Henderson. He didn’t have a band with ... that didn’t sound like Lenny White. But he did some funk ... something with Herbie, that Fat Albert Rotunda record — but it’s not that. This is a weird stab, but didn’t he play with Blood, Sweat and Tears for a hot minute? But that’s not them. Is this a CTI record?

Kennedy: That’s a George Duke synth sound.

[After several guesses about the bassist, Ron Carter’s name is revealed.]

Ferrante: I never would have guessed. I can’t say it’s my favorite kind of thing. But it was fun and lively and exciting for the time. Through the years, I hung out a lot with George Duke, recording at his studio, and he produced a lot of projects that I played on. He was an incredible human being, so upbeat, encouraging, positive at all times — and very generous.

Mintzer: The piece sounds pretty generic. A lot of music in that era conformed to a certain trend, a certain style. What stood out to me was Joe Henderson. His sound and style is so identifiable.

Ferrante: Compositionally, it was pretty much a jam. I also was thinking it was Joe Henderson, but I couldn’t believe he would be in that setting. That totally threw me off.

Kennedy: Harvey has a distinct sound in how he tunes his drums, and there were a few signature licks, fills that gave it away. … It doesn’t sound like everybody’s going to be 5 stars. I understand people’s opinion, and yes, it’s a jam environment, but that’s a 5-star for me.

Alderson: I’ll give it a 5.

Mintzer: It’s not my cup of tea at this juncture, so why rate it? I’m in a different place. And it sounds like the ’70s. There was some great music in the ’70s, don’t get me wrong. But this sounded like a thrown-together session of some kind.

Ferrante: I’m caught between Will and Bob. I’d say 3 stars. One reason it would get downgraded … well, not so much compositionally, but also it’s so identifiable within an era. Some music sounds timeless; this music definitely sounds locked in a certain time.

Wayne Shorter and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

“The Three Marias” (The Music Of Wayne Shorter, Blue Engine, 2013/2020) Shorter, soprano saxophone; Carlos Henriquez, arranger.

Bob Mintzer: Wayne Shorter, and that’s one of his compositions. He’s an amazing saxophonist and composer, but also a wonderful arranger and orchestrator.

DownBeat: He didn’t arrange or orchestrate this, though.

Will Kennedy: I was trying to listen to individual players and thinking of all the bands that Wayne put together, and I couldn’t recognize any distinct characteristic of the drummer, and I couldn’t really hear the bass player. Maybe it’s some sort of special event that featured Wayne. I know of one that happened in Los Angeles.

DownBeat: You’re half-right. It was a special event, but it wasn’t in Los Angeles.

Kennedy: I’ve heard that song before, and this arrangement was really well done and well-orchestrated. The players were stellar. Of course, we love Wayne. Everything he’s done has been historic. He’s the man!

Mintzer: Gorgeous composition. I have this composition on a recording of Wayne’s from the 1980s. 5 stars for the tune and the playing — and the arrangement was excellent.

Dane Alderson: 5 stars. Beautiful tune. I’ve never heard it before, though I might have seen the name “Three Marias” on an album. I loved the shift between the 6/8 and 3/4 grooves.

Russell Ferrante: Wayne is at the top of the mountain. There is no filter on him. He goes anywhere at any moment, and it’s perfect, because it’s so genuine. I had a chance to play with his band for a time, and hang at his house and rehearse with him.

Ahmad Jamal

“I’m In The Mood For Love” (Saturday Morning–La Buissonne Studio Sessions, Jazz Village, 2013) Jamal, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums; Manolo Badrena, percussion.

Mintzer: Maybe it should be called “I’m Not Really In The Mood For Love.”

Ferrante: I can tell you all the people that wouldn’t be, but — as a wild guess — it could be someone like Ethan Iverson or ...

Mintzer: It seems like an older recording.

Ferrante: I don’t think it’s older. I think it’s a contemporary recording.

Panken: Within the last decade. But it is an older musician.

Mintzer: Ahmad Jamal? That’s who I thought of.

Ferrante: Yes.

Kennedy: It is? I never would have guessed. I was completely on the other side. I was relating it to a funny story that Bob has shared with us about picking up a percussion instrument while performing with Tito Puente. Needless to say, if you’re not in the clave, not completely grounded or rooted in the spirit of the style, you’ll likely be challenged to successfully pull it off. I gathered that this musician was perhaps not even American! I heard all the phrasing and characteristics of the jazz style and harmony, but the rhythm — the production decision of even having percussion on a jazz ballad — I thought was something foreign from America.

DownBeat: Well, it was recorded in France.

Mintzer: With French musicians, maybe?

DownBeat: No, it’s his band. Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley and Manolo Badrena.

Mintzer: Great musicians. To me, the arrangement was distracting. It was disjointed — I’m assuming intentionally. A lot of stops and starts. If you consider what the song “I’m In The Mood For Love” is about, it didn’t sound like that. It sounded more like an argument than something loving. A lot of conflict. I guess it could be construed as somewhat interesting, but not in keeping with the spirit of the tune.

Ferrante: I haven’t listened a lot to Ahmad Jamal. In my mind, he’s always been to the side of the jazz mainstream, even though I know he was totally influential to musicians like Miles Davis, and they’d check out and borrow from his arrangements — because he’s a very creative musician. It was really interesting: You hear this incredible harmonic knowledge, and the history of jazz, and his left-hand Art Tatum-esque technique and virtuosity. But it is disjointed — maybe intentionally. He’s a great artist. It doesn’t speak to me, but I wish I could do that.

Alderson: I loved the piano intro; I thought that was wild. The Ahmad Jamal Trio album Live At The Pershing was influential to me — the tunes “But Not For Me” and “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.”

Dafnis Prieto Big Band

“The Triumphant Journey” (Back To The Sunset, Dafnison, 2018) Mike Rodríguez, trumpet; Nathan Eklund, Alex Sipiagin, Josh Deutsch, trumpet, flugelhorn; Román Filiú, alto saxophone; Michael Thomas, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, piccolo; Peter Apfelbaum, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, melodica; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Chris Cheek, baritone saxophone; Tim Albright, Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik, trombone; Jeff Nelson, bass trombone; Manuel Valera, piano; Ricky Rodríguez, bass; Roberto Quintero, congas, bongos, percussion; Prieto, drums.

Mintzer: That was an adventurous arrangement.

Ferrante: Great writing. I have no idea again. I was going to guess something in the ilk of Miguel Zenón and the SFJAZZ Collective.

Mintzer: Arturo O’Farrill? Then I don’t know who it is. The arrangement was very textured and interesting. I loved the beginning and the end; the saxophone layering was really interesting-sounding. It was all sort of full-on, which is a little different than what I do.

Ferrante: The trumpet player was incredibly virtuosic.

Mintzer: That stood out to me, too. [afterwards] Did Dafnis do all the writing? That’s impressive. DB

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