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A Rise in the Road, the YELLOWJACKETS’ second Mack Avenue Records offering, is indeed an appropriate title for a time-honored jazz ensemble that has never been fearful of facing newer musical horizons, not to mention the myriad challenges of life itself. Throughout their storied 32-year history, the Yellowjackets have undergone numerous lineup changes, never failing to rise to the inevitable challenges of adjustment. Keyboardist Russell Ferrante and bassist Jimmy Haslip, the dual cornerstones of the group’s 21 previous recordings, were responsible for a sizable chunk of the Yellowjackets’ catalogue. Yet, despite those shifts, Ferrante and Haslip, along with saxophonist Bob Mintzer (23-year member) and drummer William Kennedy (14-year member, spread out between two different time periods), soldiered on with a professionalism that has resulted in 17 GRAMMY® nominations – with two wins – countless sold-out tours, and worldwide critical acclaim.
Last year Jimmy Haslip announced he was taking a hiatus to focus on other projects and spend more time with his family. Alas, all things must come to an end, as he has decided to make his hiatus permanent. Although his leaving is seismic within the scope of the Yellowjackets’ history - a rise in the road, if you please - change is no stranger to this consistently innovative and adaptable collective. A Rise in the Road introduces a new member – bassist Felix Pastorius – to replace Haslip. Pastorius, whose last name is widely familiar to jazz aficionados, steps in to contribute his talents to the group’s continuing sonic ventures. More on Felix Pastorius in a moment.
In 2010, the Yellowjackets signed to Mack Avenue Records and in 2011 released Timeline, which reached # 5 on Billboard’s jazz chart; the title cut received substantial national jazz radio airplay, making the song a staple on Billboard’s “Smooth Jazz Songs” chart. Now, the Yellowjackets unveil A Rise in the Road, a 10-track study that burnishes the group’s sterling reputation for high quality tonal explorations and ensemble execution.
Produced by Ferrante, Mintzer and Kennedy, A Rise in the Road stands shoulder-to- shoulder with their 21 previous efforts. “It’s about the challenges that people face in their lives and whatever path they are on: It’s not always smooth sailing, it’s not always a level road,” explains Ferrante, with regards to the project’s meaning. “Certainly, over the 32 years that we’ve been a band, we’ve had things come up, challenges such as musicians that have left the band, business people, relationships that you have built over the years. Things come to an end, and you have to meet the challenge and keep going forward.”
Felix Pastorius is the newest Yellowjackets member. He is the son of legendary jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, most known for his affiliation with jazz-fusion contemporaries, Weather Report. Prior to his death in 1986, Jaco had enlisted Mintzer to play saxophone in several of his post-Weather Report big band incarnations. Mintzer was familiar with Felix Pastorius as a top- flight musician, having sat in as a guest performer in the Jeff Coffin Mu’ Tet where Felix was the bassist. “The music industry is a small place. We held auditions with a few bass players, and Felix’s name came up,” reflects Mintzer. “He was the one that rose to the top, really played well, and seemed like he had the personality that fit well. I believe we made the right choice.”
In a statement released upon officially joining the Yellowjackets in early 2012, Pastorius commented: “I am humbled by the opportunity to step in for Jimmy Haslip.” A Rise in the Road also marks the first time in nearly 30-years that Jaco’s bass was played on a new recording. The instrument can be heard on several tracks. Robert Trujillo (bassist for Metallica), who owns Jaco’s bass, is a Pastorius family friend and generously loaned Felix the bass for the session.
As one half of the Yellowjackets rhythm engine, Will Kennedy stood to feel the impact of Jimmy Haslip’s departure and Pastorius’ addition directly. “When we got word that Jimmy was moving on, it was a shock to all of us because he had such a big footprint in our band. We weren’t quite sure what the possibilities were or what it would be like.” The three eased Pastorius into the fold by gigging with him for eight months during 2012, a move that allayed fears as the band gradually became comfortable playing together. “That shined some light on the situation,” Kennedy continues. “As opposed to a detriment, it was more of an opportunity for us to grow and expand with a different combination of voices within our group. It turned out to be a pleasant experience, and it continued on into the recording process.”
Prior to the recording process, each member arrived armed with the knowledge that whatever composition one brings to the table will receive proper respect. “It’s very democratic,” Mintzer says, describing the song selection process. “Once a song is brought to the table, it’s free rein, basically. It’s a given that the composer relinquishes his initial take when a song is given to the committee. Everyone is welcome to make adjustments and suggestions.”
Ferrante penned “An Informed Decision,” “An Amber Shade of Blue,” “You’ll Know When It’s Time” and “Longing;” Kennedy contributed the sensual “Madrugada;” while Mintzer penned “When the Lady Dances,” “Civil War,” “Thank You” and “I Knew His Father.” Mintzer titled “I Knew Your Father” as both a tribute to Jaco Pastorius and a warm welcome into the Yellowjackets for Felix.
Additionally, Ferrante composed “Can’t We Elope,” a play off Herbie Hancock’s famed “Cantaloupe Island.” Ferrante explains, “’Can’t We Elope’ is kind of a bad pun. I borrowed the bass line and the feeling of the song from the Herbie’s tune; the title plays off that.” “Can’t We Elope” features rising star trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who also contributes creative flows on “An Informed Decision” and “An Amber Shade of Blue.” Akinmusire is a past winner of both the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and the Carmen Caruso International Trumpet Solo Competition. “He’s a young trumpeter who’s been making a lot of noise,” Ferrante reveals. “It was a real honor to have him record with us; he’s a super-talented musician.” From a historical perspective, while the band has rarely incorporated the trumpet on their previous albums, Akinmusire’s appearance marks the second consecutive Yellowjackets album to feature the instrument.
“The actual recording process went smoothly,” Ferrante relates. “Felix did a lot of homework; he had charts and demos of the new music.” Mintzer adds, “On several of our records there were extensive overdubs. But on A Rise in the Road, it was mainly just the four of us playing live. There were a couple of little overdubs, but not nearly as much as previous albums. We accomplished a big, big sound. It sounds pretty wide for just four guys!” Ferrante agrees: “The music changes to accommodate new people. We’re really pleased with the way A Rise in the Road came out.”
“We do miss Jim, without a doubt,” concludes Mintzer. “Whenever you change personnel in a partnership band like this one, things change dramatically. But somehow, this core of what the Yellowjackets is about remains; it transforms in one direction or another. But there is this strong sense of collaboration and strength in numbers that I seldom find in groups where there typically is a leader. A Rise in the Road is the next chapter of the Yellowjackets. We welcome Felix Pastorius to the fray and are grateful to have the opportunity to express ourselves in a way that reflects where we are all at in this very moment.”