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After break, Yellowjackets are back on the road, ‘firing on all cylinders’

After break, Yellowjackets are back on the road, ‘firing on all cylinders’

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Yellowjackets © Roberto Cifarelli

Yellowjackets 

Like every other music act, Yellowjackets were forced off the road and into a period of relative quiescence by the pandemic.

“As one friend said, we took a long intermission,” says Russell Ferrante, keyboardist for the veteran jazz-fusion outfit.

But the band is back on the road once again and “firing on all cylinders,” Ferrante says. “There’s nothing like being in front of a live audience and feeling that energy. People seem really excited at the concerts we’ve done thus far. They’re really happy to be back experiencing live music, and it’s a real joy to play.”

Yellowjackets perform a series of shows starting Oct. 6 and continuing through the weekend at Ferring Jazz Bistro.

The band members — Ferrante, tenor saxophonist/EWI player Bob Mintzer, drummer Will Kennedy and bassist Dana Alderson — did have other matters to attend to during the shutdown, however. Most notably, Ferrante, Mintzer and Kennedy are all faculty members at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.

“We were teaching all during the period, remotely, teaching over Zoom, and now we’re back in person with students,” Ferrante says.

Teaching remotely was a challenge, he admits, but it got better along with the technology.

“I had a camera over my piano, and I could demonstrate things, the students could see,” he says. “And the applications, like Zoom, got better for audio. In the beginning, it was horrible, but that improved.”

Then, too, the circumstances forced the students to get up to speed on current musical apps, as well as learning how to perform and collaborate online — a rare positive outcome of the pandemic.

“Part of a musician’s career these days is doing some recording at home,” Ferrante says. “Like, someone will ask me to put a piano track on what they have. And so for the students, it’s a great skill to be able to play and make it sound like you were in the room with everyone else.”

Yellowjackets managed to record their most recent album, “Jackets XL,” which came out last November, before the pandemic. It’s a collaboration with Cologne, Germany’s WDR Big Band, of which Mintzer has served as principal conductor since 2016. The album features some of Yellowjackets’ best-known tunes with dynamic new arrangements and expanded instrumentation.

“Some of the songs we’ve played for many years, but we always try to find something fresh in the music every time we play it,” Ferrante says. “I think that’s another reason why the band has continued on — it never feels stale.”

Continue on it has, across more than 40 years, with more than a dozen musicians cycling in and out of the band. Ferrante is the sole original and continuous member since Yellowjackets formed as a backing unit for a Robben Ford solo album in the late 1970s. Mintzer joined in 1991, Kennedy has served two stints in the band, the first dating back to 1987, and Alderson signed on in 2015.

“As Bob often says when we’re doing workshops, it’s a leaderless band,” Ferrante says. “All four members really are equal. And we like that; we want that. We want everyone involved and everyone contributing.”

While all of the band members maintain busy schedules outside the group — Ferrante, for one, released a trio album, “Inflexion,” this year — they’re all committed to keeping Yellowjackets a going concern.

“I think we all prioritize this situation,” Ferrante says. “Speaking for myself, this is the most gratifying musical activity I’m involved in. And I think the other guys would say the same thing.

“We hang onto it tenaciously. We don’t want to let it go. As long as people are interested in hearing us play, we’ll be there.”

What Yellowjackets • When 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6-7, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Oct. 8-9, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 10 • Where Ferring Jazz Bistro, 3536 Washington Boulevard • How much $10-$46; proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or negative test required • More info 314-571-6000; jazzstl.org

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