A veteran of more than four decades, Russel and the group’s contribution to the jazz and creative industries is undeniable.
We wanted to tap into his many years of experience on the ever-changing scene to get his take on how things have evolved and what has contributed to the group’s long-term success.
You’ll find the full interview below, but first a couple of takeaways which resonated with us:
- Be the kind of person, other people want to be around. This comes up again and again from interview guests and is so true!
- Finding like-minded musicians who are willing to work as a team is the key.
- A personal connection with fans is so important, both then and now.
As always please feel free to drop your comments below…
Yellowjackets have been together for more than 40 years now; to what do you attribute such longevity and what’s been the biggest change in that time, in terms of the jazz industry?
I would attribute our longevity to a few things. (no surprises here!)
- We love what we do!
- We have supportive and understanding spouses and families.
- The band is a democracy with everyone’s input encouraged and all share equally in the decision making, creation of the music, and finances.
- We have built strong friendships and all the members are team players and people of integrity.
- We’ve been fortunate to work with record labels and managers that have encouraged us to make music we believe in.
Biggest change: It’s always changing!
- The emergence of streaming and social media as the way to promote and distribute the music.
- Not as many gatekeepers which is both good and bad. It’s great for new musicians to reach an audience but there are so many recordings available and little quality control.
What’s your current set up in terms of team? (ie booking agent, manager, label, publicist…)
- Label: Mack Ave Records
- Manager and booking agent: Myles Weinstein Unlimited Myles
- European booking agent. Isabelle Pfeifer Bella Concerts
- Publicist: Don Lucoff and Leah Concialdi DL Media
We love working with all of them!
The Yellowjackets line up has changed several times over the years; how have you managed to maintain that band feel, rather than launching multiple new projects?
I think we’ve established a sound after 40+ years. Though we have had some personnel changes, the core of the band has been together quite a long time.
- Myself since 1980-present (43yrs)
- Bob Mintzer since 1990-present (33yrs)
- Will Kennedy 1986-1999, 2010- present (26 yrs)
- Dane Alderson 2015-present (8 years)
Bob Mintzer and I tend to do a lot of the composing so that’s kind of a constant.
We all value serving the music as opposed to gratuitous displays of chops, although occasionally we do get carried away.
How involved with the actual booking of gigs have you been during your career?
We let the booking agent deal with the specifics but we do offer input on available times to tour as both William Kennedy and Bob Mintzer teach full time at University of Southern CA and I just recently retired from a full time position there.
You have taught at USC and been a guest at Berklee School of Music; what is the #1 thing that this new generation of music students need to know in terms of building a career?
- Focus on the music and work hard!
- Find like-minded musicians and write and work on your music.
- Listen to all kinds of music but be keenly aware of what truly resonates with you and cultivate that.
- Be the kind of person, other people want to be around. Are you trustworthy, ethical, a team player?
- Be the kind of musician other musicians respect. Are you skilled on your instrument, versatile, a team player, a good listener?
Do you engage directly with fans online and, if so, which outlets have you found the most effective or enjoyable for this?
I engage a bit through Yellowjackets’ Facebook fan page. I also hear directly from a lot of fans and musicians via email.
I enjoy sharing Yellowjackets’ music scores with other musicians.
We also sell Yellowjackets’ CD’s and my wife and I personally process and ship those. That provides an opportunity to write thank you notes to fans and make a personal connection.
You released your latest record “Parallel Motion” last year, and will have a tour coming up in 2023. How far ahead are you planning these activities in 2023 and beyond?
We have several dates on the books for 2023 right now but and there will likely be more as the year progresses. You can follow our itinerary at Yellowjackets.com We have a European tour set for May and will likely return to Europe in the summer and fall.
Right now we have multi-date engagements booked in NYC, Baltimore, and St Louis along with some weekend dates.
Your recent discography has all been released via Mack Avenue. What makes a great label partner on today’s musical scene, and how does that vary from the old days of Warner and Universal?
For us the most important thing is for the company to believe in what we are doing and trust us to make the music that truly reflects our tastes and strengths.
It’s obviously important for them to be up to speed on all the technological changes taking place. That means knowing who is listening to and buying the kind of music we make and where those fans can be reached.I think it’s a tougher job now with the constantly shifting technology and the overwhelming number of places people receive information.
The major labels no longer dominate as there is competition from smaller labels and self-produced and self-funded recordings. It’s challenging to get your message heard above everyone else’s!
That said, we feel incredibly fortunate to have been with supportive labels throughout our career beginning with Tommi LiPuma at Warners, Ricky Shultz at MCA, Larry Rosen at GRP, Dave Love at Heads Up, and presently Denny Stilwell at Mack Ave.
All these record executives truly loved, understood, and respected the music and the musicians. We could not ask for more.
Thanks to Russell for taking the time to answer these questions!
You can find out more about him, the Yellowjackets and their various projects below…
About Russell Ferrante
Born in San Jose, California in 1952, Russell Ferrante began studying piano at the age of 9 years old. His early musical experiences revolved around the church where his father was the choir director.
His interest in jazz and improvisation was kindled in high school and shortly thereafter he began performing with various R&B and jazz groups in the San Francisco Bay Area. The bay area was an exciting place to be in the early 70’s with musicians freely combining musical styles.
This exposure to seemingly every kind of music helped prepare Russell for his professional career which began in 1973. It was then that he met guitarist, Robben Ford and toured the U.S. and Europe as part of legendary blues singer, Jimmy Witherspoon’s band.
“Much to my parent’s displeasure, my gig with Jimmy Witherspoon necessitated my dropping out of college. I like to say though that navigating the musical and non-musical hazards of the road with “Spoon” was an education I could never have gotten in college”.
Russell moved to San Francisco in 1975 where he continued to be active on the vibrant local music scene and landed his first teaching job at the Community Music Center in the Mission District.
In 1977 Russell moved to Los Angeles in order to continue working with Robben Ford. Within a short time, he was recording and touring with a variety of musicians including Robben, Joe Farrell, Tom Scott, and Joni Mitchell.
It was during this period that, Russell, Robben and Jimmy Haslip co-founded the jazz group, Yellowjackets. Russell also continued working as a freelance writer, arranger and producer for numerous recordings including those by Sadao Watanabe, Bobby McFerrin, Michael Franks, Al Jarreau and many others.
Presently, Russell continues his 42 year association with Yellowjackets, performing and conducting clinics worldwide. From their inception in 1980, Yellowjackets have recorded over 20 albums, receiving fifteen Grammy nominations and winning two awards, Best R&B Instrumental Performance in 1986 and Best Contemporary Jazz Performance in1989. They also wrote and performed music for the motion picture Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home.
Russell has taught and conducted hundreds of clinics at colleges and private music schools throughout the United States, Japan and Europe. Included are those at the prestigious Berklee School of Music who offer a course analysing Yellowjackets music as well as a Yellowjackets’ performance ensemble.