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PLIGHT OF THE

It seems like the Yellowjackets have gathered their fair share of the nectar. The jazz-fusion band has held together for 13 years in spite of numerous personnel changes. Its albums have been nominated for Grammys five times and won twice. This year, to mark its tenth year of recording, the group has a new label, GRP, and a new disc, Greenhouse.

Despite that success, bassist Jimmy Haslip talks of the Yellowjackets' future as though the group is in danger of being stung.

"Well," he says with a nervous laugh, "at least we're guaranteed another three albums on our record contract."

The band would appear to have little to worry about. Greenhouse recently climbed to the No. 1 position on Billboard's jazz chart. Although chart positions and record sales were once their only goal, the Yellowjackets think more these days about their image than their sales figures. They're being slammed by both purists and pop-jazz fans alike for trying to change, something that jazz has built its history on.

By refusing to settle into a secure niche and churn out albums that sound alike, Haslip, drummer William Kennedy and keyboardist Russell Ferrante have long courted trouble. The difficulty began when the members of the band got carried away by their omnivorous listening habits and began to mix what they heard with what they played.

"We try to be musicologists as well as musicians," says the bassist in a recent telephone interview. "We listen to everything. Jazzmen John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, [Duke] Ellington and [Count] Basie. In classical music we try to be familiar with everybody from Aaron Copland through avant-garde composers like Penderecki. Lately the band has been big on folk music from all over the world--music from Africa and the Middle East, Japanese koto music, even Eskimo recordings.

"We're constantly updating our playing vocabulary by hearing as much as we can. It's the fuel for the band's fire."

According to Haslip, the Yellowjackets had always intended to stretch out further with every new release. Scouring record bins and making friends with ethnomusicologists, they have pulled their music into deeper and darker waters. Anyone doubting that they've changed should take a random listen to their catalogue of releases.

The group's 1981 premiere album Yellowjackets was a predictable, shaky tribute to funk and R&B heroes. But by 1985's Samurai Samba, the band had grown both more melodic and electric, having swallowed the best of fusion bands like Weather Report. Three years later on Politics, the group had risen above mere mimicry and was flaunting a wide palette of heavy jazz influences and a newfound songwriting strength. Anyone still expecting the band to sound like its tame labelmate Spyro Gyra was in for a surprise. Each new release was a dizzy--and maybe irritating--ascension for any fan who expected the office-party lite jazz of its first albums.

The biggest changes showed up on 1989's The Spin. At the time, band members had been listening to a lot of recordings on the dry-and-heady German ECM label.

"Players like Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber, jazz musicians from the European community who recorded for ECM--that became a whole other area that inspired us," recalls Haslip. "There was a Norwegian named Jan Erik Kongshaug who had engineered over 300 of ECM's albums. We loved his feel for recording and wanted to capture that same acoustic sound for ourselves."

Soon the members of the band were on a plane to Oslo, Norway, where they employed Kongshaug's studio talents. The synthesizers were left at home, resulting in the most acoustic recording the band had made to date. Norway was a long way to travel, but the musical distance between the Yellowjackets' first release and The Spin stretched much further. The Spin closed with a surprisingly heavyweight medley embracing two jazz giants: "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing" by Duke Ellington's composing cohort Billy Strayhorn, and bop pianist Bud Powell's "Hallucinations." Compared with the group's debut album eight years earlier, The Spin was Mahler symphonies coming after jump-rope songs. That ran counter to the common jazz-band trend of starting off pure and turning to pop-rock fusion for the cash. The evolution from pop-rock fusion to straight jazz has continued. The difference between the mainstream pap of "Lonely Weekend," the Yellowjackets' 1985 FM-ready breakthrough single, and the improvisational, straightahead jazz on Greenhouse is striking. No other jazz band comes anywhere close to this history of maturing on record. But every change has left the band feeling more isolated.

"We're not really accepted in any jazz vein. We're a band that kind of fits in the cracks," laments Haslip. "On one end you have pop-jazz like saxophonist Kenny G; on the other end you have traditionalists like trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Most everybody in jazz falls into one category or the other. We have fans from both ends of the spectrum, but no solid support from either group of listeners."

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Dave McElfresh