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Jazz Greats the Yellowjackets with Mike Stern Visit McNally Smith

On June 11, the legendary Yellowjackets performed and gave a clinic at McNally Smith College of Music for an audience that included students, staff and faculty of the college, along with luminaries from the Twin Cities music scene. The Grammy-winning group was joined by Mike Stern, a guitarist of giant stature in the world of jazz. Stern, who first came to wide acclaim in Miles Davis’s group in the early 1980s, appears on the Yellowjackets’ new CD “Lifecycle” and is currently on tour with the group. In addition to performing five numbers and discussing how they composed music and worked out arrangements, the visiting artists took questions from the audience at McNally Smith. The topics addressed by the elite players included approaches to thinking about (and working towards) creating an individual sound, steps to building a career in music and the rigors of touring and band interaction.

Former student Conall Walsh’s father is a longtime friend of the Yellowjackets’ road manager, Geoff Gillette, and the two connected during the band’s tour stop in Chicago. Conall’s father suggested to Gillette that McNally Smith might be a good fit for a clinic during an upcoming two-night engagement at The Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. The ball was rolling, and Conall (who is working as a talent buyer for Crash Mansion in Los Angeles) contacted McNally Smith’s Debbie Sandridge about the possible clinic. With the help of McNally Smith’s Gary Gratz and others, the clinic was arranged and Mike Stern was also brought into the picture.

On June 9, the Yellowjackets were looking for a rehearsal space, as Mike Stern was joining up with the group for the first time since recording “Lifecycle.”  Geoff Gillette contacted Gary Gratz at McNally Smith, who arranged for the group to set up in the college’s auditorium. Ryan McNally arranged for sound and logistics, and the group launched into rehearsals for their impending shows at The Dakota.

Returning two days later for the McNally Smith clinic, the Yellowjackets and Mike Stern received a warm welcome from the college community and special guests. McNally Smith President Harry Chalmiers greeted the crowd, speaking briefly about recent developments at the school. Among the many honored guests from the Twin Cities music community were jazz vocalist Connie Evingson, Hornheads trumpet player Mike Nelson, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra bassist Fred Bretschger, Jonny Lang’s bassist Jim Anton, drummer Kevin Washington and others.

The members of the Yellowjackets are Russell Ferrante (keyboards), Jimmy Haslip (bass), Bob Mintzer (saxophones) and Marcus Baylor (drums). The band’s roots date back to 1979, when Robben Ford recruited Ferrante and Haslip to record on his release “The Inside Story.”  The 1981 debut album Yellowjackets on Warner Brothers introduced the group’s seamless sound, melding jazz, fusion, R&B and rock influences, creating a tight and accomplished affair that immediately stood out in the genre. Some 20 album releases later, Yellowjackets have continued to evolve their sound, exploring dense soundscapes, world beats, acoustic forays and improvisational workouts. The Grammy winning Yellowjackets mix soul and heart with complex artistry like few others.