There are some rules, but there are also infinite options’ 

A conversation with Jimmy Haslip of jazz superstars The Yellowjackets

A FEW MONTHS BACK, when the Coastal Jazz Association announced the lineup for the 25th Annual Savannah Jazz Festival, one of the most noteworthy elements of that press conference was the CJA’s confirmation that at long last, this beloved free event would be broadening its scope a bit.

Specifically, after years of acting as though the increasingly popular (and likewise, more mainstream) variant known as “smooth jazz” had no place in this nationally-known musical celebration, the largely purist board and those in charge of booking talent for the festival had decided to —in their words— “offer all types of jazz.”

Noting that a great part of what has kept jazz such a vibrant and important genre over many, many decades has been the fact that it is known far and wide as a “living art built on a constantly evolving tradition,” the CJA had designed the next-to-last night of the week long event as their first-ever evening of smooth jazz.

Titled “Smooth and Saxy,” this massive free show in beautiful Forsyth Park features three acts: Georgia’s own long-running sextet, Between 7 &9; Atlanta soprano saxman Dee Lucas; and, closing out the night, Grammy-winning headliners The Yellowjackets.

This superstar ensemble is one of the best known combos in the world of modern jazz, and tours worldwide to both critical and public acclaim. Their appearance at this year’s Savannah Jazz Fest is something of a feather in the cap of the CJA, and —it should be said— they could hardly have chosen a better or more well-known group to headline this particular night.

There’s only one problem.

According to Yellowjackets bassist and founding member Jimmy Haslip, his band doesn’t exactly fit the bill.

“I think one of the bigger genres today that people seem to categorize us as is the ‘smooth jazz’ movement,” he muses by phone from his home in Los Angeles.

“I mean, I don’t consider The Yellowjackets smooth jazz, but unfortunately, some promoters and journalists seem to think that’s the direction we move in.”

This may come as a surprise to many fans of the group who consider themselves fans of that often maligned genre (which has been historically derided by hardcore jazzbos for being too lightweight or pop-oriented to be taken as seriously as “true” jazz). However, as an extended conversation with the convivial Haslip shows, he’s not nearly as condescending towards the genre as many of its detractors.

He’s just proud of the broad scope of his bandmates’ talents, and views his group as too diverse and open-minded to be hemmed-in by such a ham-fisted handle (with lingering negative connotations).

“Look,” he continues good-naturedly. “In the past, we’ve recorded a few things that smooth jazz fans have endeared, but as a band, we never really wanted to conform to any trends. We’re all about stirring the pot! Along the way, we’ve been inspired by certain people — including (Weather Report keyboardist) Joe Zawinul, who just passed away. He was a big influence on the group even early on. Now, we don’t sound anything like Weather Report, but them and Miles Davis and John Coltrane were it for us on the traditional side. Of course, we’ve also been heavily influenced by folks like Peter Gabriel and by African and Latin music. And classical music! We peek into these other closets for ideas, and most bands don’t. (laughs) Plus, we’re still continuing on in that quest!”

It’s a journey that has served the band well, indeed. While the Savannah Jazz Fest’s promotional literature cannily ties in their 25th Anniversary to The Yellowjacket’s own quarter of a century milestone, Haslip corrects that piece of information too — although admitting that there’s been no small amount of confusion surrounding the actual date of the band’s formation.

“Officially, we’ve been together for 29 years. That’s a really long time for any unit. At this point, the elders of the group are myself and (keyboardist) Russell (Ferrante), who’ve been in the band from the very beginning. Bob Mintzer (saxophonist and clarinetist) has been with us for 17 years, and our drummer (Marcus Baylor) —who’s the newest member— has been on board for 7 years, which is a long time as well.”

The group originally formed as an instrumental spin-off from R & B guitarist Robben Ford’s band, and nabbed a contract on their own with Warner Brothers Records. Throughout their storied career, they have veered into some unexpected territory, but maintained a large and loyal legion of fans who find in The Yellowjackets not only the slick production value which helps to define much of the “smooth” genre, but an adventurous, abstract spirit more closely akin to less commercial forms of jazz.

Haslip chalks up the band’s exploratory nature to their collective vision of what writing and performing jazz music is all about. It’s a vision that values artistic challenges over celebrity status.

“The Jackets were never concerned with the flavor of the month. We’ve changed a lot over the years, but we’ve kept a certain identity and kept moving forward. We wanted to experiment with the music and keep it fresh. In doing so, I think we found some more unique ways of expressing ourselves, where other bands might not have.”

“The common goal is a motivation to move the music in a different way. I think Miles Davis was the quintessential example of what we might call ‘the jazz explorer.’ He was restless, and didn’t want to get stuck doing just one type of thing, or stay in one place too long. He wanted to experiment from within the music and take it to new and exciting places.

“In a way, this is a kind of deeper — and even spiritual quest. The group’s common goal is to become better musicians, and in doing so we sometimes might selfishly sit down and write material that’s more challenging and complex to us as players than it may be interesting to an audience. At the same time, The Yellowjackets always try to be mindful of making the complex songs more understandable to our fans.”

The more the bassist speaks about the spiritual side of his —and his band’s— music, the more it becomes obvious that for him at least, being in The Yellowjackets is more than just a fun, lucrative job.

“I’m as much of a music listener as I am a producer and composer,” he offers.

“I love to listen to beautiful music of all sorts. And it doesn’t have to be complex, either. It could be very simple. Like just Bob Dylan singing a song and playing the acoustic guitar. I could listen to that and be blown away! It has to be... compelling. Maybe that’s the word I was searching for. It has to raise my curiosity and teach me something I never knew before. Like when you see a Hitchcock movie and you wonder where it’s all going, but somehow you’re led into it there’s a huge surprise at the end when it all comes together.”

“That’s what we’re trying to when we’re writing, rehearsing and recording. We want to present something that may surprise the listeners and takes them to a place where they have a new experience. Or any special experience, for that matter! (laughs) If I hear a piece of music and it makes me cry then it has done something truly extraordinary. It’s reached me on a very deep level.”

“This is all about honing our skills and using all the metaphysical and spiritual things that enter into it. I studied Kundalini yoga for a couple years and was blown away when my instructor called music the highest form of yoga. I found that very interesting, and motivating.”

For this appearance in Savannah, the band will be joined by their old friend, Eric Marienthal, a modern jazz icon who first came to prominence in the late 1980s as a member of Chick Corea’s Elektric Band. He’ll be filling in for Bob Mintzer who can’t make this gig.

Haslip says this Forsyth Park show will —by nature and design— be noticeably different from any other show they have played. That’s the way the band likes it.

“Live, you’re actually creating in front of an audience, and when it’s jazz improvisation, that will simply never happen again,’ he says excitedly.

“What’s most interesting to me, and I believe the other members, is to just have a basic template of the songs and then create something brand-new from night to night and really take chances. Sometimes you fall on your face and sometimes things happen musically that you just can’t even believe.”

“There are some rules, but there are also infinite options. You try and go out with an empty canvas. Sometimes it’s too slow, or you’re too fast. Sometimes you break into a Latin rhythm, or not! (laughs) In the studio, you can hone things to a kind of perfection, but live it’s all about a conversation between the musicians on stage that night.”

“We’ve been nominated for 13 Grammys, and won plenty other awards around the world. That’s wonderful, but it hasn’t jaded us. We’re still learning and growing. It’s hard to explain the chemistry between all of us in the Jackets, but it puts us in the mood to buckle down and be serious about doing what we need to as musicians.”

“Then of course, there is the long history of wonderful and amazing musicians who preceded us that we all look up to. If we can bring some of that great history forward, especially to young musicians, then we can be an important link of some sort to the future.”

“We’re trying to do the right thing.”

The Yellowjackets w/Eric Marienthal play at 9:30 pm, Friday in Forsyth Park. The show is FREE to ALL-AGES. For more info, visit www.yellowjackets.com.


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