Russell Ferrante

Having A Beer With: Russell Ferrante

…at The Pony Bar in NYC

February, 2011 

BBJaze:  First, congratulations on thirty years together with the Yellowjackets and also on the band’s new release, Timeline.

RF:  Thank you…

BBJaze:  Of course I want to discuss the band and the CD, but first:  You’re known internationally as a founding member of the Yellowjackets, as a progressive musician and composer, but my sources tell me that you’re also a fan of beer.

RF:    Yeah, I do enjoy beer.  I would say I have a beer a day.  It’s kind of a tradition…what’s a better word?  Habit?

BBJaze:  I’d say when you’re talking about beer drinking, “tradition” is probably a safer word than “habit.”

RF:  Right.

BBJaze:  The Yellowjackets’ performance rider indicates that, if possible, the venue should provide some locally brewed beers.  Is that for your benefit?

RF:  Well, the soundman and myself and Jimmy enjoy beer.  Typically on a nightly basis, when we’re gigging, at some point Jimmy will ask me if I want to split a beer.  We do like to sample locally brewed beers, but I don’t consider myself a connoisseur.

BBJaze:  The Yellowjackets have played all around the world.  Does sampling local beer in the places you’ve played help you to remember those places?  Do you sort of associate a flavor with a place?

RF:    Actually, yes.  When there’s a great beer at a certain place, that place really stands out.  I played a lot in Japan with Sadao Watanabe, and we would travel all over the country, and one of the cities we played was Sapporo.  Sapporo beer in Sapporo—it was incredible.

BBJaze:  When did you first realize that you really liked beer?

RF:  Let me try to remember.  I know I didn’t drink in high school, so it was sometime after that.  My first beergasm—

BBJaze:  Beergasm?  May I quote you on that?

RF:  No.

BBJaze:  So when did you discover your fondness for beer?

RF:  When I was younger, I was really into sports—I loved to play basketball.  And after playing pick-up games with friends for a couple hours, or sometimes all day, we’d be all sweaty and exhausted and we’d go into 7-11 and buy beer.  And when you’re incredibly thirsty and dehydrated—

BBJaze:  There’s nothing like drinking something that will further dehydrate you.

RF:  It’s such a great sensation.

BBJaze:  And now for some music-related questions.  I know that Jimmy has a background in rock music.  Among other projects, he was in a band called Blackjack, which was kind of a rock supergroup.  Bruce Kulick was the guitarist, and the lead singer was, of all people, Michael Bolton.  Whatever happened to that band?  Do you have any idea?

RF:  I don’t know exactly, but Jimmy left Blackjack right around the time the Yellowjackets got their first record deal.

BBJaze:  So Jimmy was playing simultaneously with Blackjack and the Yellowjackets?

RF:  Yeah, actually.

BBJaze:  Did you ever have any interest in playing rock music?

RF:    Not really.  The piano isn’t so much a rock instrument.  The closest I ever came to pop or rock was when I spent a year recording and touring with Joni Mitchell.  It certainly wasn’t rock, but we operated like we were a rock band, playing in stadiums and traveling on a private jet.

BBJaze:  This was the mid-seventies?

RF:  The early eighties.  1983.

BBJaze:  While you were with the Yellowjackets?

30 Years Ago: The Hirsute Jackets

RF:  Yeah.  We had done a couple records, Robben [Ford] had just left the band, and this was kind of an interim period.  My wife and I had just had our daughter—

BBJaze:  Oh!  Well congratulations, belatedly, on the birth of your, uh—

RF:  Twenty-eight year-old daughter.

BBJaze:  I have to admit that I don’t own a single Joni Mitchell album, but I’ve certainly heard her music, and I get the impression that she could be called something of a genius…

RF:  Yes, she is.  She defies categorization.  I have great respect for her musicianship and her songwriting and her overall artistry.

BBJaze:  So Joni Mitchell was the closest you’ve ever come to playing rock or pop.  You’re not a fan of pop music at all?

RF:  There are certain groups or artists that I like…if the music has some sophistication.  Sting and Peter Gabriel come to mind.

BBJaze:  Have you ever worked with Sting?

RF:  I did work with him at an event celebrating Brazilian music.  All the artists performed Jobim tunes.

BBJaze:  Jobim, cool.  I love Jobim.  He’s definitely in the pantheon of western popular music composers.  My favorite Jobim tune is “Waters of March.”

RF:  I knew you were going to say that.

BBJaze:  Damn.  Is that everyone’s favorite Jobim tune?

RF:  It’s a tricky song.

BBJaze:  That’s right.  It’s deceptively simple.  Or deceptively difficult.  I never understood that expression.  But you know what I mean—you hear “Waters of March” once and you think it’s a simple song, easy to play…

RF:  Yeah, but it keeps changing.  The harmony is always shifting under this very simple melody.  It’s ingenious.

BBJaze:  Another one of my favorite tunes—and I’m not just saying this because you’re sitting here with me—is your tune “Revelation,” which I first heard on Robben Ford’s Talk to you Daughter album.  It’s definitely one of my favorite recordings of all time.  There are no lyrics, but it’s clearly a gospel tune—

RF:  Right.

BBJaze:  I know that when you were a kid you thought that you’d grow up to play piano in church.

RF:  Yes, that’s right.

BBJaze:  Does gospel music consciously inform your sensibilities as a composer?

RF:  Yeah.  When I was growing up my dad was a choir director.  We were really involved at church.  My mom played piano, as well as violin, and she’d always be playing piano around the house, and the way she played was kind of like the arrangements that were in the hymnals at church—triads, but with sevenths and thirds in the bass…

BBJaze:  So it’s sort of inside of you…

RF:  Sure, you can’t escape it.

BBJaze:  A number of the Yellowjackets’ recordings of your compositions have that gospel feel—

RF:  That’s right…

BBJaze.  But it’s not like you set out to write a gospel tune.

RF:  Not exactly.  But if a song idea comes to you, you have to finish it in the spirit in which it was conceived.

BBJaze:  That’s interesting to hear, because in the Yellowjackets’ genre—jazz fusion, or whatever you want to call it—many times artists have a very scientific approach to composing, with the result, to me, anyway, that the compositions sound disjointed and mechanical, like exercises rather than tunes.  But the Yellowjackets’ compositions, even though they’re technically advanced, are still very melodic.  I think it’s fair to say that they have a “hook.”  And I wonder if the gospel harmonies you’re talking about have something to do with that.

RF:  Maybe that’s true.  The intent is always to explore a new idea, to take something that has some quality of familiarity and give it a twist in some way so that it’s not just delivering another cliché, but not going so far left that it leaves everyone scratching their heads.  We do like nice melodies and harmonies, but we like to twist it around a little bit so that there’s something different about it that you can’t quite put your finger on.

BBJaze:  Do you think that kind of originality helps to explain the Yellowjackets’ longevity?  Does it also have something to do with the personalities of the guys in the band?  I’ve met you all, and you’re incredibly nice guys.

RF:  Yeah, I think the combination of personalities has something to do with it.  There’s an ethos of teamwork, no one is really too concerned about being the star of the band.  We prioritize the music and the band over the individuals in the band.  And we really like what we do, we’re really energized by what we do.

BBJaze:  I think it’s also reasonable to say that your audience can’t really outgrow your music, which is why I was wondering whether you ever had any interest in rock or pop music.  Do you think Jimmy ever feels relieved or even grateful that he didn’t make it big with Blackjack?  If that band had stayed together, they’d probably be playing PBS telethons in Liberace costumes.  But I’m assuming the fact that jazz musicians can go on being cool forever was no part of your calculation when you were a young musician making decisions about your future?

RF:  Really, there was no long-term planning.  I just had to trust myself to make the best decision when it came to having a choice.

BBJaze:  I’m sure you get asked all the time if you have advice for young musicians, so I won’t ask you that.  It seems obvious that the most important thing musicians need to be sure of is that they have talent and discipline, that they know what they’re what they’re doing as musicians.

RF:  That’s right.  I do a lot of teaching, and the band does a fair amount of clinics, and that’s a question that comes up all the time—“What do I do, how do I move to the next step in my career?”—and it seems to me that there’s a lot of focus on career rather than really developing your musicianship.  I always kept the focus on the music and never worried about anything else.  When I had to make decisions about getting a manager, for instance, I’d make sure he was credible, that he was honest, or when it came to signing a record deal I’d make sure it didn’t seem like we were getting screwed, but my energies have always been focused on the music.

BBJaze:  But you’re also good at music.  Have you ever had to be brutally honest with a student who has ambition but lacks talent?

RF:  Well, I have colleagues who will say those things, but I tend to be encouraging, to try to help people—because I could be wrong about somebody’s talent.

BBJaze:  Well, you’re a nice guy, Russ—

RF:  I’ve actually had students from ten years ago who weren’t the most talented people who have come to me recently and said “Man, I was really struggling, and you encouraged me, and I’m really glad I met you.”  Maybe some other teacher could have whipped them into shape—

BBJaze:  In a Germanic sort of way…

RF:  Yeah, but that’s not me.

BBJaze:  So it never occurred to you to try to be a prick?

RF:  No, I can’t do it.  Sorry.  After a few more beers, maybe…

BBJaze:  I’m wondering about the switch in the band from guitar to saxophone, which happened early on.  Was Robben Ford the only guitar player who was ever properly part of the band?

2010: A Musical Odyssey (l-r) Will Kennedy, Jimmy Haslip, Bob Mintzer, Russell Ferrante

RF:  Actually, we experimented with a couple different guitarists.  Right after Robben left we recorded Mirage-a-Trois, and the guitarist Mike Miller is on that.  He’s a fantastic guitarist—Bill Frisell has been quoted as saying that Mike Miller is his favorite guitarist.  We played with Mike for awhile, but it didn’t really gel the same way it had with Robben.  I’m into sports, so I tend to think of a change in musicians as like a draft, where you’re not drafting for a position, but you’re drafting for the best out there—it doesn’t always matter what they play.  We ran into Mark Russo from the Tower of Power, and Jimmy and I thought, wow, there’s a connection here.  And then when Mark left it was the same with Bob Mintzer.  Mark played alto sax, and Bob plays tenor, coming from a very different place musically, and we welcomed that.

BBJaze:  When Mark left, would you have brought another guitarist into the band at that point, or were you committed to the saxophone?

RF:  At that point I think we really liked saxophone because there’s can be an inherent rub between keyboards and guitar—you’re occupying kind of the same territory.  It can work, and it can be really good, but, selfishly, I was enjoying having all that harmonic space.

BBJaze:  So you could have gone on with guitar as the lead instrument, but you’re happy you went the sax route.

RF:  Yeah, I think so.  But as well as someone’s musicianship, personality matters.  When you spend all that time together, you’ve got to find people you really like and connect with, otherwise it can sour the experience.  I’ve been a sideman in a lot of different bands with guys who were really good musicians, but the personalities didn’t gel, or people had some questionable habits—

BBJaze:  I wonder if that’s what happened to Blackjack.  Though in that case, maybe the band didn’t work because no one had questionable habits.  You can’t have a successful rock band if no one in the group has questionable habits.

RF:  No comment on that.

BBJaze:  What about the trumpet?  Could you see a trumpet player in the Yellowjackets?

RF:  Sure, it’s possible.

BBJaze:  Though there’s something sweeter or more vocal-like about a saxophone.

RF:  Saxophone seems a little sort of closer to the earth, and the trumpet seems closer to the gods.

BBJaze:  There are some other things I want to ask you about, but I know you have to go…

RF:  That’s okay, I’ve got some time.  Beer and conversation—this was a good idea.

BBJaze:  Do you have any frustrations as a musician?  Do you ever wish that you be a better player or a different kind of player or composer?

RF:  Well, there’s always a certain level of dissatisfaction about what you know and what you can do and what you can write.  It can be intimidating when you consider the great history of music and the volume of music that’s been written in all genres, especially, for me, Western orchestral music.  Think about the great masters—Bach, Haydn—and their knowledge of writing for these really large ensembles, or the musicians who can look at a score and hear the music in their head or read an orchestral score like you or I would read a novel.  I’m really in awe of that.  So there is a dissatisfaction about what you know—and that’s good…

BBJaze:  Sure, it’s a healthy dissatisfaction.  Without it, you’re complacent and you can’t improve—

RF:  That’s right.  With the Yellowjackets it’s really cool because we have this ensemble where we can write music and create playing situations for ourselves, and whatever I learn anywhere I can bring to the band and it’s kind of our laboratory, and we can create a song from this musical concept that I’ve discovered.

BBJaze:  Okay, I’m going to get another beer.  Want one?

RF:  No, I’ve got to play tonight—I’m stopping after two.

BBJaze:  I’m wondering about your approach to songwriting.  Do you decide that you want or need to write a song and then sit down and write one, or do your compositions develop more sort of organically?

RF:  Well, deadlines do really act as a motivation to get down to business, but it’s not like I can predict what I’ll have at the end of the day.  About a month before we recorded Timeline, I set out every day to try come up with ideas and try to push songs along.  It’s always difficult at the beginning of the process, but then you kind of get into a rhythm and the ideas flow fairly easily.

BBJaze:  Any surprises on Timeline in terms of the compositions or the personnel?  Does Britney Spears play a trumpet solo?

RF:  There’s one tune with Robben on it.  Since it’s band thirtieth anniversary, we thought it would be nice to bring him back…

BBJaze:  You’ve worked with an amazing number of people over the years, but is there anyone you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?

RF:  Oh, let’s see.  Yes—

BBJaze:  Yes broke up a long time ago.

RF:  Well, they would be great.  But someone that I greatly admire is the arranger Claus Ogerman, who arranged a lot of the classic Jobim tunes and this amazing Frank Sinatra record of Jobim tunes.

BBJaze:  I like Sinatra a lot.  I get Sinatra.  He’s one of those guys, like Bob Dylan, that you either “get” or you don’t.

RF:  I get both of them.

BBJaze:  I don’t get Dylan—

RF:  Well, it’s his songwriting…

BBJaze:  Well, I don’t get it.  I can’t explain why.  But, for that matter, I don’t get why a lot of people don’t get Sinatra.  That guy could deliver a tune.

RF:  Oh yeah.  Recently I’ve really gotten into two Sinatra records, one of them being what is credited as being one of the first “concept” records—In the Wee Small Hours.  The whole record is amazing.  The orchestrations are by Nelson Riddle.  And when I was in Japan I got this Jobim and Sinatra record, a two-volume CD, one volume arranged by Deodato and the other by Claus Ogerman.  Sinatra’s singing is spectacular—his timing, his phrasing, his pitch, the way he tells the story…amazing.  And in those days, the singer sang live with the band—no pitch correction, no overdubbing.  Sinatra…you know…has  a level of craftsmanship and musicianship that you don’t find very often.

BBJaze:  He’s what you’d call a natural.

RF:  He does everything in the right place—incredible economy and eloquence.  Spectacular.

BBJaze:  So you’d like to work with Ogerman.  Anyone else you can think of?

RF:  Oh, there are so many.  Maybe somebody like Peter Gabriel.  I love his music.

BBJaze:  The Yellowjackets have been together for thirty years now—a long time, obviously.  Not that I hope this would happen, but what would it take for the Yellowjackets to call it quits?  Or can you see the band continuing indefinitely?

RF:  Hmmm.  Maybe if the music wasn’t fun to play anymore…if we felt like we were stagnating…

BBJaze:  What if Jimmy threw a TV out of the hotel window?

RF:  I don’t think he would—

BBJaze:  That might actually put the Yellowjackets at the top of the pop charts.  One last thing:  Tell us something about the Yellowjackets that you don’t want anyone to know.

RF:  Let’s see…

BBJaze:  Post-gig hot tub parties with the Swedish women’s volleyball team?

RF:  No, it’s pretty boring.

The Yellowjackets’ new release, Timeline, celebrates the band’s 30th year recording and touring the world, and it marks the return to the band of longtime drummer Will Kennedy.  Timeline is the band’s first release on their new label, Mack Avenue Records.