Following the cancellation of their 2020 European tour due to the pandemic, celebrated American jazz-fusion quartet the Yellowjackets will at last return to the UK this spring. As part of their tour, they will perform at the Stoller Hall in Manchester, as well as a two-night residency at Ronnie Scott’s in late April. Bob Mintzer, the group’s reed player of over 30 years, talks about the upcoming performances… Preview/interview by Charles Rees:
Since their founding by guitarist Robben Ford in 1977 the Yellowjackets have been at the forefront of jazz-fusion innovation, and today are considered to be one of the most beloved and acclaimed outfits of that genre. After 26 albums over 40 years they have managed to remain relevant and sell out shows around the world while many of their contemporaries have faded into obscurity.
Line-ups have come and gone, with keyboardist Russell Ferrante being the only holdover: on drums is William Kennedy, who replaced Ricky Lawson in 1987 following his death; on bass is Dane Alderson, the newest and youngest addition to the group, having replaced Felix Pastorius (son of Jaco) seven years ago. Perhaps the most famous of the four is reed virtuoso and arranger Bob Mintzer. It is easy to forget that he only became a Yellowjacket in 1991; he has, after all, been a pivotal player in so many of their projects.
All are in-demand artists and balance their roles with many other commitments, which in Mintzer’s case includes chief conductor for the WDR Big Band and a teaching post at USC Thornton School of Music in California. He explained why he personally remains with the Yellowjackets: “It’s a collaborative effort, it’s a partnership and there’s no leader […] It’s a very gratifying organisation to be part of because you have a lot at stake there; you’re a player, composer, arranger, producer and decision-maker. Most of the work I’ve done has been for leaders, so this is a unique situation for me.”
However, Mintzer was certainly the principal impetus behind their most recent album, in collaboration with the WDR, Jackets XL (Mack Avenue, 2020) [reviewed for LJN by Peter Bacon]:
It featured ten Yellowjackets classics newly performed alongside the instrumentalists of the WDR band and arranged by Mintzer. The neo-Bob Brookmeyer / Jim McNeely influence that seems so dominant in almost every other modern writer is not so much a part of Mintzer’s arranging; he has instead cultivated a sound that often strays from modern orthodoxy.
“I never had any formal training as an arranger,” said Mintzer. Instead his style evolved from his experiences playing in big bands such as those led by Buddy Rich, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis and Jaco Pastorius. The Yellowjackets will not be joined by a big band in their upcoming tour but some of the music from Jackets XL will appear.
Mintzer’s arsenal of instruments has been indispensable to the Yellowjackets’ highly individual voice, especially his EWI (electronic wind instrument). He was one of the earliest high-profile EWI exponents (in addition to Michael Brecker) and his love of the instrument is simple: “It’s a nice departure from playing saxophone.” He is also one of the greatest saxophonists to date, though his abilities on the instrument have been somewhat overshadowed by his other talents. For proof, just listen to him on The Birthday Concert by Jaco Pastorius, particularly his trading with Brecker on “Invitation”.
Today the Yellowjackets are going as strong as ever. “It gets better and better; it’s crazy! You’d think we’d run out of gas at some point, but it’s really been the opposite,” said Mintzer. He mentioned that the band are set to release a brand new album around early autumn, yet to be publicly named. Some of this new material will also be featured on tour.
Tickets for all shows are on sale and they typically sell out fast (full list of dates and booking links below). Mintzer concluded our interview with a message to anyone contemplating the trip: “It’s always a celebration, somehow, when the band gets together. I think, particularly given the state of affairs in the world right now, this is something everyone needs a little bit of.”