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The Virgins and ASCAP: Did A Performance Rights Organization Do Anything For Us?
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Berklee News

Yellow Fever

Two members of the Yellowjackets spend a week performing, teaching, and collaborating with students.

By Stephen Smith '05
August 2, 2005

Yellowjackets drummer Marcus Baylor (right) performs with two student bassists during a clinic.
For more than two decades, the Yellowjackets have made complex music sound simple. Berklee recently invited Russell Ferrante and Marcus Baylor, one-half of the Grammy-winning quartet, to explain how they've done it.

During the first week of April, the duo performed a series of clinics and concerts around campus. They also visited various departments, joining classroom discussions and working one-on-one with students. The weeklong visit culminated in a two-hour performance on a Friday night at the Berklee Performance Center, a rousing concert featuring Ferrante and Baylor playing with Berklee student groups.

Between their arrival and departure following a standing ovation at the week-ending concert, the pair showered Berklee with advice, insight, and opportunities to perform and collaborate.

Ferrante and Baylor spoke often about the key to the Yellowjackets' success: the band's dynamic as a collective. "The first priority is to get the band to blend rhythmically. It's like breathing together," said Ferrante during a clinic early in the week. Learning to occupy the space-learning "'how to find a part,'" he said, quoting bandmate Jimmy Haslip-is the role of each band member.

Russ Ferrante performs during Berklee's Yellowjackets concert.
Marcus Baylor agreed, and challenged the convention of elevating soloists above rhythm sections. "Try to play less," he said. He described an ideal solo as being propelled by the rhythm section, and said to approach it "like a composition." Ferrante added that the responsibility fell to rhythm players as well. "You have to avoid doing something that would distract. You have to think of it like an arranger."

They elaborated by addressing a thorny issue, improvising as a musician with strangers. Baylor returned to the concept of establishing a common rhythm. "Try to find the groove, then build a conversation."

Known for their unique compositions, the Yellowjackets were quick to endorse technological aids. Ferrante said he records his piano improvisations and listens to them for new ideas. Baylor records drum grooves, playing piano over the recordings to develop melodic ideas. Recording tools are essential for the compositional process, they explained-particularly for a band whose members are split between the East and West coasts. Finally, once they come together to rehearse and barriers of distance and technology fall away, compositions evolve out of the face-to-face collaborations. "You give up your ironclad idea of what the song should be, and trust the other musicians to make it their own," Ferrante said.

Asked specifically about his drumming technique, Baylor replied with one word: "Light." Intensity should be independent of dynamics, he added. In smaller rooms a drummer's volume is limited, but he needn't sacrifice the ability to play intensely. "A lot of people, when they play soft, their intensity drops. I want to be able to play soft but also play aggressive." Ferrante added, "You don't always have to go to 10 [in your solo]. Sometimes you can just simmer on 6."

Both musicians stressed the importance of preparation, with Baylor citing as an example his first break playing with Kenny Garrett. "I wanted to play with him, so I learned his book. If there's someone you want to play with, learn their tunes. They're looking for something magical, some chemistry, but that can't happen if you don't know the book."

Midweek, the duo played an impromptu concert with faculty guitarist Mick Goodrick and faculty bassist John Lockwood. The four had never played together, and had only communicated via email beforehand to discuss tunes and tempos. Yet when they stepped onstage, it took only moments for them to converge. "The difficult part is intros and endings-trying to figure out how to get into and out of a tune. You just have to hope all your preparation as a musician will carry you through," Ferrante said after the performance.

Vocalist Jean Baylor takes the lead at The Yellowjackets Songbook concert.
That concert served to illustrate many lessons they shared during their residency. Baylor delivered a powerful brush solo that brought the performance hall down to a whisper, an undeniable proof of intensity without volume. Ferrante and Goodrick traded phrases on "Falling Grace" and the final tune, a "gutbucket blues," that exemplified the essence of conversation. The quartet gave a model demonstration of music as collective enterprise.

The concert at the end of the week brought more collaborating musicians to the stage, including the visiting artists, along with guest vocalist Jean Baylor , who worked with students during the week. Other performers included vocalists Christy Bluhm and Jeremy Ragsdale; the Berklee Yellowjackets Tribute Ensemble, led by faculty member Dave Weigert; and the Berklee Yellowjackets Concert Ensemble, led by faculty members Mitch Haupers and Scott deOgburn and featuring Dennis Montgomery III's gospel choir, Overjoyed.

The students' impression of Ferrante and Baylor was unanimous. Above all else, students viewed the duo as greats who didn't tout themselves as prodigies, but rather as men whose musicianship was the product of hard work. Success wouldn't come quickly or easily. But it was attainable.

Ferrante describes the Yellowjackets as a family. He and the Baylors brought that attitude to Berklee, and the feeling spread around campus during the week. They invited students to jam with them, and they shared stories and experiences. Working with the students helped Jean Baylor, who has performed and recorded with the Yellowjackets over the past four years, reconnect with the fundamental joys of music making and education. "I've remembered why I love music," she said.

Stephen Smith graduated from Berklee in 2005 with a degree in jazz composition.

Russell Ferrante and Marcus Baylor were invited to Berklee as Herb Alpert Visiting Professors. Their visit, coordinated by faculty member Mitch Haupers, will be followed next year by the Yellowjackets ' other half, Bob Mintzer and Jimmy Haslip. The week was sponsored by Yamaha , Keyboard Magazine , Sabian , ProMark , and Wild Whip Records.

Grand Stand

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Formed in December 2005, J-Music Distribution representatives brought their business vision to "MIDEM, The World Music Market's 40th Edition" conference in Cannes, France.


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