On the day after the earth moved and moved again under the feet of northern Californians, Yellowjackets bass player Jimmy Haslip worried for the families of his fellow band members who live in the area--until the news came that they were alive and well. "It was upsetting--pretty wild," Haslip says understatedly from Chicago. "We're in the middle of a ten-week tour and we'd been out for five weeks. Everybody had taken a few days off for a little R&R." Mother Nature sure threw a 7.1 monkey wrench into those plans. But after reassuring themselves of their loved ones' welfare, the rest of the Yellowjackets--keyboardist Russell Ferrante, drummer William Kennedy, and sax player Mark Russo--were scheduled to fly back and continue touring behind their latest album, The Spin.
It's an LP the group is particularly inspired to get the word out on. The Spin is a heady mix of instrumental sonorities and electric effects, each blending without overpowering. Kick back to the early Eighties and remember the hard-driving, yet poignant sounds of the band Steps Ahead. It's acoustic jazz with a contemporary feel that defines the spirit of The Spin. "We decided we were going to make [this] more of an acoustic-sounding record," explains Haslip. "So many bands are doing electric music, things like the Taylor Dayne pounding drum-machines sound, and we felt more comfortable exploring it from another place."
Which shouldn't be surprising for the Yellowjackets. The band's Grammys for R&B Instrumental and Jazz Fusion bespeak a willingness to continually explore new territory. "We've always tried to come up with a different-sounding record," Haslip says. "We take chances with forms instead of relying on the basics. Take Spyro Gyra. You pick up their last record and it sounds like their first. We look to challenge in our music."
The band does pay attention to trends, says the bass player, but the members look at them with a critical eye. "We aren't completely overwhelmed by trends," he says. "A trend to me is something happening now."
One of those "somethings" is ethnic music, and the Yellowjackets say that much of their influence for the new release came from listening to sounds from far-off ports of call. Like Africa, for instance.
"Senegal [on the west coast of Africa] is a center for drummers--the most incredible [players] are found there," Haslip says. "Drumming is taught as a part of their religion. I mean, rhythm began in Africa. Anywhere in the world, the rhythmic basics come from there. They have that as part of their heritage."
And where do the best bassists hail from? Haslip chuckles at the question. "The big center in the USA is Philadelphia. I can name so many players--Stanley Clarke, Victor Bailey, Jaco [Pastorius], Darryl Jones, Alfonso Muzan."
Besides Philly, the band has its ears tuned "a lot to music out of Japan, India, things like the Bulgarian Women's Choir, and China," Haslip says. "We don't ever lift anything straight out of what we hear, but there is some kind of reaction out of your psyche when you sit down to listen to any kind of music."
The Spin interweaves these influences while resting firmly on a jazz foundation. Throughout, Russo and Ferrante mesh in an unpredictable harmonic point-counterpoint with rock-solid, freely inventive rhythms from Haslip and Kennedy. "Geraldine," the opening track, begins with the sax and piano reaching symphonic elegance before sidling into a reflective minor key, percussion quietly percolating with ever-growing strength. The group double-times its way through the title cut with polyrhythms and exuberant swoops, while Russo's tender, uplifting solo on "Prayer for El Salvador" contains hope and elan vital.
The flavor of each instrument's voice is always apparent on the album, but no one player stands apart from the rest. And in an age of overused electronics, the return to creative melodic improvisation by the Yellowjackets, and groups like them, is like cool water to the thirsty hordes. In particular, this release sounds live, an effect that was no accident, reports Haslip.
"When we sat down to approach the record, we asked ourselves, `What could we do that would enhance the technology [we use] and still come up with something different?' A lot of the [ethnic] music we were listening to had things like acoustic drums and handmade flutes, and we liked those sounds. We wanted to include strings, and had thought about asking Claus Ogerman to arrange them for us."
The group's search for a spacious, warm record led them to record in Oslo with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, well-known for his work on the ECM jazz label. "There's a certain space he creates, like a transparency," the bass player notes. "Everything is three-dimensional. The music doesn't sound cluttered. It's like you can look into the record and see what every instrument is and what it's doing."
Kongshaug himself plays guitar and bass, which endears him to the group as a "musician's" engineer. Will he make a return visit on future 'Jackets albums? "We'd like [him] to," Haslip says. "That's always a possibility. We'd probably have him come mix it in the U.S., which he's offered to do."
But even with the album's make-good status, don't look for the band to create The Spin II. "We try never to repeat ourselves," Haslip reflects. "In principle, we strive to make the music adventurous. We're always looking into the future.