Yellowjackets Take Expansive Approach

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Bob Mintzer (left), Dane Alderson, Russell Ferrante and Will Kennedy collaborate with the WDR Big Band on Jackets XL.

(Photo: Roberto Cifarelli)

For the beloved quartet’s 25th album, Yellowjackets decided to go big—as in, really big. The vibrant, robust Jackets XL (Mack Avenue) is a collaboration with one of the finest large ensembles in the world, the WDR Big Band, based in Cologne, Germany.

The common ingredient in the two groups is tenor saxophonist and EWI player Bob Mintzer, who has been in Yellowjackets since 1990 and has been the WDR Big Band’s principal conductor since 2016. Mintzer conducted the big band and wrote or co-wrote eight of the arrangements on the new album.

The Jackets XL program offers a mixture of new compositions alongside fresh arrangements of material from the band’s catalog, including “Mile High” (from the 1987 disc Four Corners) and “Even Song” (from 1994’s Run For Your Life).

Mintzer and the other members of Yellowjackets—pianist and keyboardist Russell Ferrante (who cofounded the band in the late ’70s), drummer Will Kennedy and electric bassist Dane Alderson—all deliver killer solos on the album, which was recorded in Cologne over the course of six days in November 2019.

Mintzer’s arrangements also give members of the big band room to shine, as evidenced by guitarist Paul Shigihara’s fluid fretwork on “Even Song.”

All four members of Yellowjackets were in a jovial mood on a mid-October afternoon when they assembled for a Zoom chat with DownBeat. Mintzer and Ferrante were in the Los Angeles area, Kennedy was in Houston and Alderson was in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“I have two ‘homes’ right now,” Mintzer said. “One is Yellowjackets, which I’ve been a member of for 30 years, and I’ve had a relationship with the WDR Big Band for 30 years, in one capacity or another. So, these were two very familiar entities, and I knew that they would fit together well, with the least amount of effort. I knew it was going to be great—and it was.”

Alderson, the newest member of the band, considers himself a very lucky man. “It’s like a dream come true, to be the bass player for Yellowjackets,” he said. “But to have Yellowjackets [collaborate] with the WDR Big Band … was just a mind-blowing experience. It’s something I will never forget.”

“It was very easy,” Kennedy said about recording Jackets XL. “There’s something about finding your home when you do a recording with your band. You need to find your space and your sound, and your voice. Bob really did a great job arranging the material around what we already do as a band. And that was enhanced by the WDR Big Band.”

Two of the album’s most intriguing tracks have Ferrante’s fingerprints all over them. In addition to composing “Tokyo Tale,” he wrote a new arrangement for his tune “Coherence,” featuring wondrous orchestral elements, such as trombones and muted trumpets.

“Tokyo Tale” has a quirky origin story. “On the road, I always bring a keyboard with me that I have in my hotel room, to practice, write and work,” Ferrante said. “Oftentimes, we’re jet-lagged when we’re traveling internationally. So, I remember being in Japan one night. I woke up at two o’clock in the morning. I was supine. I was on my back with my keyboard, and I just heard this little question and answer between the bass and the chords. So, I started working it out that night and subsequently I made a little memo of the idea.”

Mintzer’s arrangement of the complex “Tokyo Tale” provides space for WDR Big Band member Paul Heller’s knotty tenor saxophone solo—illustrating the conductor’s willingness to share the spotlight.

All the members of Yellowjackets have had previous experience working with big bands—but none more than Mintzer, who has led his own namesake large ensemble and written or arranged hundreds of charts for big-band instrumentation.

Ferrante jokingly contrasted his level of arranging experience with that of his bandmate.

“Bob writes the music in such a way that the band can really grasp it, and he knows what works for a big band,” Ferrante explained. “That’s like the opposite of me, because I don’t have that much experience doing it. I remember the first big-band arrangement I ever wrote was for the GRP All-Star Big Band. This was, you know, more than 20 years ago. After rehearsing my tune, we were taking a break and [saxophonist] Tom Scott was walking out and just muttering, under his breath, ‘These experimental arrangers are murder on the band.’”

That anecdote prompted an eruption of laughter during the Zoom chat, followed by a flurry of comments in which Ferrante’s bandmates complimented him on his skills as an arranger.

Prior to the pandemic, Mintzer had planned to have Yellowjackets and the WDR Big Band perform some of the Jackets XL material together in concert. Such a production will have to wait until another day, when large gatherings are more feasible.

In the meantime, Mintzer is teaching classes online at USC’s Thornton School of Music, which also boasts Ferrante and Kennedy as faculty members.

Mintzer described some benefits of having three bandmates teach at the same prestigious institution. “Will and Russ are fantastic musicians and wonderful teachers,” he said. “And there’s the opportunity for students to get a glimpse at a longstanding ensemble: What are the inner components for the success of this band? How is the music developed? What are the relationships like?

“It’s a huge window into the world that these students are aspiring to enter. We were supposed to start a band-in-residence [project at USC] this year, but COVID derailed that,” he added. “Hopefully, once things clear up a little bit, we’ll revisit that.” DB

This story originally was published in the January 2021 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.




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Julian Lage
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