Among successful bands billing themselves as jazz, the Yellowjackets are one of a very few whose music is true to the spirit of the word. While their peers unabashedly go for a watered-down sound that listeners can easily comprehend, the Yellowjackets employ complex rhythms, rich harmonies and extended improvisations.
Yet, even with this riskier approach, the group has built a large following, as evidenced by the consistent success of its last three albums, all of which topped 100,000 in sales. The band's early-1980s albums, re-released in recent years on CD, have also moved past the 100,000 mark.
Often, sales success translates into wide radio acceptance and packed concerts, but that formula doesn't hold true for the Yellowjackets, who will play Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay tonight at 7 and 9. Ticket sales have been extremely slow.
KIFM Music Director Tony Schondel speculated that the reason might be that fans had a hard time relating to the band's latest album, "The Spin," with its long improvisations. When the Yellowjackets played UC San Diego's Mandeville Auditorium last year, the audience thinned when it became apparent that the band would concentrate on this material, as opposed to the simpler, more melodic approach of earlier albums.
The Yellowjackets always considered their roots to be in jazz, but their sound became looser and jazzier when drummer William Kennedy replaced Ricky Lawson in 1986.
"We started exploring another part of our musical interests," said keyboard player Russell Ferrante, one of two members remaining from the original 1980 group, and its most prolific writer. The other original member is bassist Jimmy Haslip.
"Before, our sound was more R&B;," Ferrante said. "Ricky was a great groove player, but Will brings another approach to his playing."
Kennedy's contribution was immediately apparent on the 1987 album "Four Corners," with its complex rhythmic juxtapositions and longer improvisations. Next came the 1988 "Politics" and last year's "The Spin," the latter marking a further departure, the band's most aggressive venture into the unpredictable, spontaneous side of jazz. Tonight's concert will focus on songs from the last three albums.
The band is living proof that you can keep your creative edge and make money, that you don't have to follow the whims of commercial radio. "The Spin" received less airplay than the previous two albums, but it is selling nearly as well, a band spokesman said.
A new album was delayed by a busy touring schedule that took the group through Japan, Europe and the United States during the past year. European audiences ranged from a few hundred in small clubs to 5,000 or 10,000 at assorted open-air festivals.
The Yellowjackets are often pigeonholed with other electric jazz bands. But, although they use plenty of high-tech equipment, their philosophy is straight-ahead. Haslip, for example, plays a fretless electric bass, which affords him a graceful sliding technique not far removed from an acoustic bass player's. Saxophonist Marc Russo offers sophisticated musical ideas.
Ferrante said he gets "a pretty decent acoustic piano sound with my electric setup. The synthesizer sounds that appeal to me are the ones which are more acoustic in nature."
In concert, the band takes full advantage of modern technology. On some songs, its sound is even augmented by tape. Coordinating what's live and what's Memorex takes concentration.
Ferrante cites the usual jazz greats as influences, but also a few who don't get as much mention these days.
"My favorite pianist is Keith Jarrett," he said. "I really love the sound he gets from the piano, the tone. I love his melodic ideas.
"A lot of other music interests me. Obviously, John Coltrane and his bands, the way he put his music together. His soloing and musicianship were on another level. The group with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison had an intensity I've never heard since."