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The Yellowjackets Are Now the Buzz at CSUN

After performing 15 years ago at the campus student union, the jazz group returns to the school's new Performing Arts Center with two Grammys in tow.


About 15 years ago, a quartet called the Yellowjackets took the stage in the student union pub at Cal State Northridge. The venue was small, lined with wood booths, basically unmemorable. For the Yellowjackets, it was just another campus concert on the road out of obscurity.

Tonight--12 records and two Grammy awards later--the Yellowjackets are back at CSUN with the threat of obscurity a distant memory. On the heels of yet another Grammy nomination--their ninth--they kick off a spring series of four jazz concerts at CSUN's new Performing Arts Center.

Anyone who saw that first CSUN appearance might not recognize the band that will take the stage tonight. Founding members Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip have been with the Yellowjackets for 17 years, but drummer William Kennedy joined the lineup in 1986 and reed man Bob Mintzer came aboard in 1990. Though the personnel changes are ancient history to the band, both marked undeniable shifts in the Yellowjackets' musical journey.


Kennedy added African and Brazilian elements to the group's original pop-R & B sound--once described by Haslip as that "West-Coast-disco-fusion-thing." They seemed pretty established as a pop-fusion band, until Mintzer replaced pop sax player Mark Russo. Mintzer's big-band background steered them more toward straight jazz, including longer improvisational solos.

Some critics have hailed Mintzer's influence as a move toward "jazz legitimacy," a comment that doesn't sit well with keyboardist Ferrante.

"I think all along the way we've [been trying] to figure out what these four particular musicians can offer, what we can add to what's already been played," he said. "If we can't offer another point of view on these songs, the category is irrelevant."

The category that the recording academy seems to have settled on lately is "best contemporary jazz performance," for which their albums have been nominated four of the last five years. It is, perhaps, the only one broad enough to hold them.

Their most recent release, "Dreamland," is a perfect example. From the funky, bass-heavy "Blacktop," to the world-rhythm-influenced "Summer Song" (with vocals from Bobby McFerrin), to the gentle "New Lullaby" (written by Haslip for his baby daughter), the album subtly shifts modes. There are more solos throughout, but the Yellowjackets haven't abandoned the melodic hooks or structure that endeared them to their thousands of core listeners.

The theme and title of "Dreamland" is embodied in a suite of music, but it didn't make it to the album. Moved by Maya Angelou's recitation of "On the Pulse of Morning" at the presidential inauguration in 1993, the band set the words to music. They arranged the suite and recorded it with a choir from Crenshaw High School. But they never managed to get permission to use the poem, so it's not on the album.

As a result, "Dreamland" feels a little incomplete to Haslip. Still, the poem was the cornerstone of the album. "It's an important statement about people's falling short, about what we can be, that there's so much potential there and we're squandering a lot of it," Ferrante said. "Hence the title, 'Dreamland.' "

The band members--all of whom write music--carried the theme of the poem into their other songs, hinted at in titles such as "Small Town," "Walk in the Park" and "Take My Hand."

Anyone who has seen the Yellowjackets perform knows not to expect a verbatim recitation of their most recent release. For their upcoming dates, including a European tour, the band is paring down and going almost all-acoustic, Haslip said.

That's right. The Yellowjackets unplugged.

Ferrante, who normally surrounds himself with a bank of synthesizers, will be playing primarily piano. Mintzer will rely on his saxophones and clarinets, forgoing his EWI--electric wind instrument. Even Kennedy is slimming down his drum set. The only problem, Haslip admits, is himself: He plays bass guitar--normally electric--not standing bass. But he's been experimenting with an acoustic bass guitar that he says he may use on the next album.

The members themselves are starting to settle down--Kennedy and Haslip both got married while working on "Dreamland." They cut down on their touring last year, Ferrante said, from five or six months to maybe three months. But the Yellowjackets will never be just a studio band, Ferrante promised.

"We love to play--that's the main thing," he said. "It's an incredible high when things are right. There are a lot of things that I think are 'canned' in this world--a lot of the things that are computer oriented or on TV. Everything is so calculated and has been thought through so carefully to elicit this certain response.

"People [can] come out to hear something that is really alive and happening in the moment, something that can explode and go into some other territory . . . that's something we need to remember."


* WHAT: The Yellowjackets.

* WHERE: Performing Arts Center, Cal State Northridge.

* WHEN: 7:30 tonight.

* HOW MUCH: $22 general, $19 seniors and students, $12 CSUN students.

* CALL: Ticketmaster, (213) 480-3232.

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