A leading crossover jazz outfit, Yellowjackets found success combining polished funk and R&B grooves with a strong post-bop- and fusion-influenced sound. Initially a vehicle for guitarist Robben Ford (who left the band in 1983), Yellowjackets rose to prominence in the early '80s and helped define the sound of smooth jazz along with bands like Spyro Gyra, the Rippingtons, and Special EFX. Along with their commercial success, they picked up accolades including the Grammy for R&B Instrumental Performance for "And You Know That" off 1986's Shades, and the Grammy for Jazz Fusion Performance for 1989's Politics. The band's ability to balance crossover appeal with a dedication to improvisational excellence has attracted top-level players over the years, including saxophonist Bob Mintzer, who debuted on 1991's Greenhouse, and guitarist Mike Stern, who appeared on 2008's Lifecycle. Other members have also included Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine, drummer Marcus Baylor, and bassist Felix Pastorius, son of legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius, who joined the band for 2013's A Rise in the Road.
While recording his 1979 album The Inside Story, former L.A. Express guitarist Robben Ford put together a backing band featuring keyboardist Russell Ferrante, electric bassist Jimmy Haslip, and drummer Ricky Lawson. The group caught the attention of Warner Bros. producer Tommy LiPuma, who then signed them, shepherding their transformation into Yellowjackets. With Ford, they released two well-received albums, 1981's Yellowjackets and 1983's Mirage a Trois, the latter of which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Fusion Performance in 1984.
With Ford's departure in 1983, Yellowjackets added alto saxophonist Marc Russo and signed to Warner Bros. Buoyed by Russo's glassy yet soulful sound, the band continued to develop, adopting an even more R&B-oriented approach on albums like 1985's Samurai Samba and 1986's Shades, which spent 32 weeks on the Billboard Top Jazz Album chart, peaking at number four. Included on the album was the track "And You Know That," which took home the Grammy for R&B Instrumental Performance.
Moving to MCA/GRP, Yellowjackets continued to build their fan base, releasing a string of well-received albums including 1987's Four Corners, which introduced drummer William Kennedy, and also included Weather Report percussionist Alex Acuña. The album was nominated for Best Jazz Fusion Performance at the Grammys. The band's follow-up, 1988's Politics, also performed well, picking up a Grammy nomination, again for Best Jazz Fusion Performance. The Spin followed a year later and nabbed the same Grammy nomination. It also marked Russo's last album with the band.
In 1990, saxophonist Bob Mintzer guested with Yellowjackets as Russo's replacement, bringing with him over two decades of experience leading his own groups, and playing with such luminaries as Jaco Pastorius, Randy Brecker, Philip Glass, and others. He debuted on 1990's Greenhouse, which hit number one on Billboard's Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. Mintzer signed on as a full-time member for 1992's Like a River, which peaked at number three on Billboard's Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart and picked up a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Recording. The group rounded out its time at GRP with 1993's Top Eight Billboard Contemporary Jazz Album Run for Your Life. Moving back to Warner Bros., the band issued Dreamland, which featured a guest appearance by vocalist Bobby McFerrin. Two more albums followed for the label with 1997's Blue Hats and 1998's Club Nocturne, which included collaborations with singers Kurt Elling, Brenda Russell, and Jonathan Butler. The group issued the live two-CD set Mint Jam on Heads Up in 2002, which also featured the debut of drummer Marcus Baylor.
In 2003, Yellowjackets returned to studio recording with Times Squared, which reached number 15 on Billboard's Top Jazz Albums chart. Three years later, they celebrated their 25th anniversary with the release of the live album Twenty Five. The studio album Lifecycle followed in 2008 and featured a guest appearance by veteran fusion guitarist Mike Stern.
In 2011, the band marked their 30th year with the release of Timeline on Mack Avenue. It peaked at number five on Billboard's Top Jazz Albums chart, and was nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental Album at the Grammy Awards. Two years later, the group released A Rise in the Road, their first album without bassist Haslip, who left the band to focus on his family and other projects. Taking his place was bassist Felix Pastorius, son of legendary Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire also guested on three tracks. Pastorius was replaced by Dane Alderson in 2015. Cohearence followed a year later and included a notable interpretation of John Coltrane's classic "Giant Steps." In 2018, Yellowjackets paired with vocalist Luciana Souza for Raising Our Voice. ~ Matt Collar~ Rovi