IT’S FUN being a Yellowjacket, says Will Kennedy, who should know.
As drummer with the renowned American jazz-fusion quartet for almost half of its 33-year lifespan, he has travelled the world, played on a dozen of its albums and next month embarks on the band’s first Scottish tour for more than ten years. Having left the band for a decade, Kennedy rejoined three years ago and appears to be relishing the reunion.
“We’re passionate about what we do, and it’s wonderful, after 33 years in the business, to still be able to record and go out and perform,” he says from his home in Houston, Texas.
The band’s quirky name may mean a wasp in the States, but on this side of the Pond is more likely to suggest a holiday camp functionary from Hi-de-Hi!.
“We do notice that it means different things in different parts of the world,” Kennedy agrees, “but it seems to work and we’ve stuck with it.
“As long as we’re breathing, I think we’re going to be Yellowjackets.”
The band has undergone some personnel changes since guitarist Robben Ford assembled a group of seasoned session players to record his album Inside Story in the late 1970s. The group coming to Scotland features founder member Russell Ferrante on keyboards, long-timer Kennedy on drums, guest saxophonist Bob Franceschini and the powerful young bass guitarist Felix Pastorius – son of the legendary Jaco, who joined last year to replace long-standing bassist Jimmy Haslip.
With two Grammy awards and numerous nominations under its collective belt, the band’s music includes elements of funk, R&B and other influences and sometimes gets saddled with a “rhythm and jazz” label. Ask Kennedy how he sees their style and “just good music” is the breezy response.
“We’re a little more seasoned now, but there’s a breath of fresh air with having Felix on board.”
He’s enthusiastic about the group’s next album, A Rise in the Road, due for release in the summer and their first recording with the young Pastorius. In the meantime, the quartet’s current album, Timeline, gives an idea of what to expect, with material ranging from the lyrically cruising title track, shifting between Ferrante’s rolling piano and Bob Mintzer’s querulous sax work, while the funkier Magnolias echoes the band’s 70s origins, complete with wah-wah guitar from founder Ford, who returned for a guest spot.
Their music, says the 52-year-old Kennedy, attracts a broad age range. Audience demographics have a certain resonance here, as the Yellowjackets tour is under the auspices of the J-Word, an initiative by the Scottish Jazz Federation and six venues to create a more viable tour network, but also to try and generate younger audiences for jazz.
The initiative aims to “overturn the beards and beer bellies image of jazz”, according to its press release, and while one might take such worn clichés with a pinch of salt, certainly in my experience, the demographic of jazz concert audiences does tend towards the middle-aged and beyond.
Whether the Yellowjackets – and, at the end of April, another J-Word tour bringing Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu (who went down a storm last week with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra), with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and Indian percussion maestro Trilok Gurtu – can bring in the hoped for younger element remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, supporting the American band on its tour is Scottish drummer Tom Bancroft’s Trio Red, with London pianist Tom Cawley and Norwegian bassist Per Zanussi. The trio’s debut album First Hello to Last Goodbye met with widespread acclaim last year, its improvisations flowing from meditative delicacy to a real groove with inventive ease – music, surely, to engage all ages.
• The Yellowjackets and Trio Red play Eden Court, Inverness, 10 March; Perth Concert Hall, 11 March; Music Hall, Aberdeen, 12 March; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 13 March; Rothes Halls, Glenrothes, 15 March. See www.j-word.co.uk