Jimmy Haslip

A special In My Backpack interview

Last November, Josh and I had the opportunity to see Renegade Creation perform in Connecticut. The band is an amazing collection of talent that includes Robben Ford, Michael Landau, Gary Novak and Jimmy Haslip. It was a fantastic evening, with the band delivering an impressive and professional set list that offered some great songs from their album.

After the show, the four members of the band met with some of the audience that had stayed, and I had the chance to speak with Jimmy for a few moments. I was thrilled when he agreed to take part in the interview you are about to read.

There’s two things you need to understand about Jimmy Haslip that I hope will reveal exactly how excited and grateful I am for his time and consideration.

First, Jimmy Haslip may be one of the busiest musicians working today. In addition to dates and projects involving Renegade Creation, 2011 finds him releasing an album and hitting the road with a tremendous band… the Yellowjackets. He also has a new solo effort out, has been working on what seems to be about two dozen efforts with Russell Ferrante, and still manages to find time to produce projects for other groups.

Second, one of my questions involved asking him if there was one or two projects that he felt particularly proud of. His answer included the following: “I can say I am proud to be a working musician and happy to help other musicians and artists in any way I can. Helping people is about the proudest and most satisfying element in my life’s work.” This is a guy that has worked with Robben Ford, Bobby McFerrin, Bo Diddley, John Scofield, Booker T. Jones… the list is long and impressive, just check out his biography… and he’s studied with legends such as Jaco Pastorius. And even with such an amazing set of credentials, you’ll see this in his responses and I can attest to it from my experience, he’s very approachable and still thrilled to be doing this for a living.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet some incredible people as a result of this web site, and I’m proud of the interviews I’ve conducted… as well as those I have planned for the future. I can honestly say that as amazing and fantastic as all of these people are, Jimmy Haslip is the most down to earth, easy going, friendly, driven, highly motivated, incredibly busy, make the most of every moment while still enjoying the day as it comes around person I believe I’ve ever met.

I cannot thank him enough for his participation in this interview. I appreciate everything he did for me, and the careful consideration he gave to each of my questions. You are in for a real treat as you go through this, because his answers and thoughts are simply phenomenal.

Since it is the latest release, I want to take a moment to direct your attention to the Yellowjackets. You can read up on them at their web site, and I hope you’ll check out their new album, Timeline. It’s out now, and it continues the long line of high-quality efforts the Yellowjackets are widely known and respected for. The band is also touring this year, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind you should look at their schedule and see a show if you can. I know I’m watching for the dates in my area.

When doing some research for this interview, I came across a video clip where Jimmy was talking about an early memory from his musical career. He was playing the trumpet and bugle at the time, and had been hired on Memorial Day to accompany some visits to cemeteries and play “Taps.” He recalls the emotions of the experience, created for him as a combination of the special day and circumstances as well as the music he provided.

I really like this story, because in a short, simple example, it provides insight into the complete package of Jimmy Haslip. He understands that there is a real connection between music and life… the story I just shared is one example, where his growing up surrounded by the rhythm and power of Latin and Salsa beats along with other influences provides another… and presents his music with a sincerity and conviction that truly captures a moment.

Over the years he has produced or played with just about anyone you could name. Rita Coolidge, Al Jarreau, Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, and Anita Baker stand alongside Crosby, Stills & Nash, George Harrison, Tom Scott, Larry Carlton and dozens upon dozens of others.

Growing up surrounded by the music of Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and many more drove home and developed those rhythmic sensibilities that are a key part of his bass playing today. He credits his brother for exposing him to jazz and classical music. And, naturally for his love of music and the times of his teenage years, there is room for the Beatles, Wilson Pickett, and anything that may have been playing around him.

His first formal dive into music was with the trumpet. After about ten years with the that, the bugle, and other brass instruments, he fell in love with the electric bass and began teaching himself how to play it. This led to some interesting discoveries and moments of creativity. It is also quite likely one of the reasons he is well-known for pushing envelopes, trying new things, being open to so many musical styles, and for being so fundamentally sound. He has an appreciation for how instruments can work together, a solid knowledge of just about all areas of music, and a personal education in playing a variety of instruments. Unite that with a love and passion for the work, and maybe it’s no wonder magic so often results.

In the mid to late seventies, Jimmy was working on a project that included Robben Ford, Russell Ferrante and Ricky Lawson. The band had come together mainly to work on some material for Robben, recording The Inside Story as the Robben Ford Group. As so often happens, even the best of plans sometimes move in wonderful and unexpected directions. Record companies and multiple projects developed, and soon Yellowjackets would take flight on their own, with Robben on hand as a “guest artist” for the first release.

By 1981, Yellowjackets were organized and had released a self-titled debut album. The combination of Russell and Jimmy have been at the center of this group for three decades now, and have released a string of successful and acclaimed albums. Frequently the Yellowjackets have been nominated for, and have won, awards such as Grammies, and they are consistently cited as one of the most influential groups around, particularly in the jazz world. The Yellowjackets frequently record and tour, and in 2011 have released their twenty-first studio album, Timeline.

In addition to his work with the Yellowjackets, Jimmy has kept busy with many groups and efforts over the years. With Robben Ford he has been a part of Jing Chi and Renegade Creation. He has produced several notable albums, and participated as a studio and performing musician in support of a dizzying number of individuals and groups. And, somehow, he’s even managed to complete three solo projects.

He’s so busy I’m honestly not sure what keeps him moving. What I can say is that the music we all enjoy has definitely benefited from his contributions. And I hope that someday I can figure out a way to grab my guitar and sit down with him for a few minutes. I know I won’t play nearly as well as I’d like… but I’ll thoroughly enjoy every moment of it if it happens. For now… it is a privilege for me to share this interview with you, and I hope you enjoy it.

Here it is… In My Backpack is proud to bring you an interview with Jimmy Haslip…

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I’m sure you’ve been asked this a thousand times, but I’d like to know the origins of your instrument setup. I believe you play not only left-handed, but with it strung as if for a right-handed player (so, for you, the low strings are on the bottom). I saw a guitarist that played in a similar fashion… I seem to remember it being Doyle Bramhall II. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced playing left-handed… from starting to the current day? Is the setup you use something you’ve encountered as a recurring challenge/solution for lefties? And, considering how often you’ve been seen experimenting with advancements (such as 5-string and 6-string basses), do you think you are more open to new approaches and is the way you started a part of that?

First off, yes, I basically play a right handed instrument left handed. So in 1963, I began learning to play the electric bass up side down. My bad…

It was more difficult early on, as the design of the basses I played presented a problem with reaching the high octave notes and I had to rely on an acoustic bass technique called the “thumb position.” (Using the thumb, planted on the fingerboard, to enable my other fingers to stretch over the fingerboard, in order to reach the higher notes above the 12th fret.) This took some practice and effort to feel comfortable with.

To be honest, now I have been playing for some 47 years and as playing is an on going challenge and work in progress, I feel that any challenges I have had and still face are similar to challenges for any musician, whether they play an instrument conventionally (left handed or right handed) or not.

As far as experimenting with the instrument, I believe the fact that I started off knowing nothing about the instrument and having been self taught at first opened the door for experimenting and trying to get comfortable with the instrument. There have been many changes in the course of my progress. For example… I started only using my thumb as a pick. That severely restricted me and it was brought to my attention by another bass player when I was in high school. (Yet, I am blown away by the amazing technique by iconic Jazz guitarist, Wes Montgomery, who only played with his thumb.)

There are many things like that over the years, that have been issues, yet some have panned out to add a unique dimension in my playing. But believe me when I say, there are NO advantages to playing this way. In fact, because of the struggles I have encountered many times, it only motivated me further to accomplish some sort of progression with my own playing.

I continue to study and practice, and I continue to find new ways to do things on the instrument, unveiling knowledge as time goes by. All very enlightening and revealing to me and my music. Knowledge is power and as long as you have the passion to focus and study, you will progress on some level.

That’s my motivation in life and it all revolves around music and a lifetime of study, playing, producing and composing.

Staying with the idea of different beginnings and approaches, I believe Robben Ford… a musician you have a long history of working with… began his musical career playing the saxophone. And, I think you started by playing a trumpet. Do you find that having been exposed to other instruments changes a musician? In other words… do you feel differently about how you approach your work as a musician and producer because you have that experience with different instruments or elements of the creative process (writing, playing, producing)? And, for you or someone like Robben… a unique guitarist that might be at his strongest in how he sets up his phrasing and the minimalism of his notes… do you find that perhaps it has meant something for you to have that background?

Absolutely yes.

I feel the 12 plus years I spent playing mainly trumpet, but also flugel horn, baritone horn, tenor horn, tuba and the bugle, gave may another perspective on the electric bass. Even my original studies with my first real bass teacher was interesting in that way.

His name was Ron Smith and he was a string bass player who also played electric bass and the tuba.

I took probably a dozen or more lessons from him and when he began to teach me the Diatonic system on the electric bass, he had me studying out of several trombone books. The books had a very melodic approach to the scales and therefore I began learning the scales and practicing them more as melodies as opposed to straight up and down scales. This made the study and the exercises more interesting to me and something that I was more comfortable with anyway as a trumpet player.

So I immediately starting relating to the instrument as a melodic instrument as opposed to an instrument only concerned with the foundation of the music. I later got more of the idea that the instrument is also extremely rhythmic and connected to the drums as well.

Putting the two together was a revelation and growing up on a healthy dosage of Latin Salsa music, rhythm was inherited through my family and our culture. (Another reason for choosing the trumpet as a youngster.)

So, even if you don’t start off playing horn first, I think it is good advice to study horn players no matter what instrument you play. Melodically, the horn players have so much information to offer as a single line instrument.

Playing many instruments certainly increases the palette for a musician. I advocate playing many instruments, even poorly, just to expose yourself to what the instrument does and how it sounds when you play it. The experience will promote progress.

Your playing seems, and I may be way off on this, to be much more based on the moment it occupies in a song than some strict rhythm or pattern. (I’d be foolish for not pointing to Jing Chi… with the name of the band meaning “Life Force” and the group consisting of a very solid lineup (you along with Robben Ford and Vinnie Colaiuta) with music that fits the “feel and emotion” idea.) Do you have any foundation in place for how you approach your playing, or does it really change based on the situation? For instance, Jing Chi was more of a power trio, while for most of its existence, Yellowjackets has presented you with the interesting situation of working without a guitar player.

Interesting question.

As far as all the different bands I am playing with or have played with in the past, I’ve always played to what’s there. This consists many elements.

Playing with a drummer is very important to the foundation and the drive of the ensemble. So focusing on that first has always been part of my plan to establish that strong foundation from the get go.

Then you have to recognize what the music is and what genre the songs are in. This will establish some style points and this all conceptually dictates how to approach the music.

Once I have observed and have a handle on these parameters, I can then add my own ideas of how to decorate the music… where there might be space to improvise and create tension… where it’s essential to perform certain melodic phrases in the music. For example, with the Yellowjackets, there are some very arranged areas in the music that have to be performed with some precision (melodies, unison lines with other instruments and chord progressions that dictate a form and/or a progression). These arranged areas within a song have to be there and motivate the music in various ways.

As I mentioned, creating tension and setting up the following section, creating certain dynamics within a song… these subtle changes within a song form are what gives a song/piece of music dynamic changes and those changes are what adds a compelling atmosphere to a song/piece of music.

I am responsible, as the bass player in the ensemble, to help bring this all together and help motivate the song along with the drums.

That’s where the next important element comes in, and that is to listen to what is going on around me, listening to all the musicians in the ensemble, whether it is a trio or a chamber orchestra of 28 musicians and making sure that the timing, rhythmic composition and support of all the other musicians is all in hand. Being able to tightly perform certain elements of a song with the other musicians and then also loosely perform improvisational sections of a song in support of the other musicians demands command of your instrument and ability to support an ensemble, just like the defense of a football team. Working together with one common goal. Performance on a high level of execution.

I am also inspired so much by music and believe in the interjection of passion and emotion. This takes time to develop and time to find a way to bring that into the music without getting overly excited, to the point where you may lose control of what you are doing.

So it’s important to work on breathing and being in the moment all at the same time as you may be exploring a deeper emotional expression with what you are performing.

I have been working on corralling all of these elements to help me become a better musician and to also achieve a higher rate of success with a performance of deep expression and emotion along with precision execution and a strong motivating groove that all comes together with an ensemble of musicians playing in front of an audience and/or recording music in a studio.

How hard do you find it to write songs? And do you find yourself challenged to keep things fresh… meaning staying away from certain keys or chords? As an example of this, I’d be interested to hear how a group with such a long-standing and solid core (Yellowjackets) continues to push each other creatively and produce strong material.

Well it’s always a challenge to write music, especially when you are trying not to repeat yourself. Trying would be the optimum word here.

No matter what happens, a writer will always rely on certain chords and/or melodic phrases that come natural when working on new music. But something to consider is always being aware of the things that inspire you as a writer. Those are the things that will push you into other directions. For me personally, it’s art in a museum, music I never heard before, an amazing film and a life experience that had impact on my emotion.

Whatever brings inspiring thoughts into my head and/or puts me in a creative mood or an emotional state that brings in an idea for a melody, a groove or a bassline. Those are the things that will hopefully ignite a solid idea that could potentially blossom into a new piece of music.

In the Yellowjackets, we have four musicians that all contribute composition. So the odds of compiling a body of work with an abundance of creative writing, is great. One reason this band has had some success in making recordings, 21 recordings to date, that have some similarities, but also many unique differences. None of these 21 recordings has a cookie cutter conceptual basis. They all stand alone as individual statements. That’s our goal and for better or worse, we move forward with that mentality with every new recording.

There has always been high expectation, which brought in some new elements to each new recording that could also possibly bring new identity and hopefully a fresh new and clean slate that would ultimately create a strong clear and lyrical statement within the music.

That’s been our goal every time we have an opportunity to make a new recording.

Your work has always occupied an interesting place in music. Whether your dedication to practicing and studies (I believed you were a student of Jaco Pastorius)… the work with Yellowjackets… the equipment you’ve used (often noted for adding strings and working with fretless models)… your efforts behind the scenes as a writer and producer… you’re a respected leader in all facets. What motivates you to take on a specific project or work with certain people or groups? And, what haven’t you tried yet as a project that you’d like to attempt?

I never really look at it this way, but the bottom line is that I have had the motivation, going back to my youth, when I was just starting out as a professional musician in the Long Island, New York area, to study and progress as a musician and later as a composer and producer. The creative fire was apparent to me and there was a lot to be inspired by.

Music I saw in live performance, all genres from Rock, to R&B, Pop, Jazz and Classical. Bands I played in with some wonderful musicians that raised the bar for me as a growing young musician. Teachers and mentors I encountered since, especially Jaco Pastorius, who not only inspired me by his incredible musicianship and his compelling composition, but was also a super inspiring teacher. All this plus the path that has led me through all the musical experiences I’ve had through the years add up and create solidity, confidence and knowledge.

I have been blessed to meet all the product endorsers that have been supporting me through the years with excellent gear, from electric basses to amplifiers and strings, speaker cabinets and effects… Mike Tobias, Keith Roscoe, Gard Lewis, Ken Dapron, Bernardo Rico, Alexander Dumble, Steven William Rabe, Chris Campbell, Dean Markley, Jim D’Addario, Jack Thrift, Ken Daniels, Paul Flynn, Truetone Music, Darryl Anders, Jim Dunlap…

To then also work with some amazing producers early on in my career, that set a precedence for me and taught me, through working with them, what was important for a producer to bring to an artist’s project and how to get organized. Very important lessons learned for many years working as a studio musician As I said, all these things add up and shape what you become on a professional level.

I am forever grateful to have had all the experience that I have accumulated on all levels. But there is always more to learn and more to fine tune and from that, there is always progression on a very positive level.

That’s what I strive for everyday. This leads up to your question, What motivates you to take on a specific project or work with certain people or groups? And, what haven’t you tried yet as a project that you’d like to attempt?

I am mostly motivated by the music and enjoy being able to collaborate with an artist, to bring his vision and the music to life. There are too many projects that I have yet to do to even list here. All I know is that I have four productions ahead of me in various stages of production and I am focused on them as well as several productions recently released.

Do you find it much different when working on a project solely from outside the playing, say as a producer?

Well, yes. If I am just producing and not playing.

For example, the Rita Coolidge Jazz Standards recording I produced for Concord Records, I hired three different acoustic bass players, because of scheduling. Chuck Berghofer, Dave Carpenter and Darek Oles. Then basically with arrangers/piano players, Alan Pasqua and Russell Ferrante, I had two rhythm sections to work with including drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Ralph Humphrey.

I later added some other musicians and soloists, saxophonists Bob Sheppard, Ronnie Cuber, vibraphonist Dave Samuels, cellist Stefanie Fife, percussionist Alex Acuña, guitarist Larry Koonse and Herb Alpert on trumpet.

I really had the freedom to focus on the performances and not divide myself into two people, the Producer and the Musician. That was a liberating factor.

I have produced many recordings that I am also involved in playing and that is much more challenging in several ways. I have to relinquish my producer hat when I am playing, say live with other musicians in the studio, and then quickly put the producer hat on when I step into the control room… although, they do sometimes overlap.

Bottom-line is, I love producing and all the facets involved in making records. So either way, I am game to move on a project as long as I like the music and the artists/musicians/bands.

With such an amazingly diverse (and impressive) list of credentials for your work, I’m wondering if any specific efforts or moments stand out as some of your proudest accomplishments.

I actually find it hard to list things I like when I have to think of this. When I’m questioned about it, I can say I am proud to be a working musician and happy to help other musicians and artists in any way I can.

Helping people is about the proudest and most satisfying element in my life’s work.

In the past few months I’ve spoken with several people that are really frightened… shocked… scared… pick your word and description… about the decline, both in quality and availability, of live music. They have pointed to things like a business model that stresses popularity and conformity over originality. There are instances where shooting for quick hits has taken over for learning the craft and building a band by touring. Prepackaged and programmed shows are becoming the norm for the biggest showrooms, where the music is taped as a background for some sort of bigger spectacle, or where singers have claimed that tapes are fine since it’s so hard to dance while singing or playing an instrument. Do you find that a lot of the younger musicians these days seem less complete as artists and the music is suffering creatively?

Definitely is a void of sorts in the business, but behind the scenes are creative and passionate young musicians… artists that are looking to push forward and find new and unique ways of composing and performing music.

I teach a lot and I see a wonderful array of young, forward thinking musicians all over the world who are not blinded by the current business model. So I am totally optimistic about the future of music.

Music is a gift and I believe that it will be cherished and honored by musicians and artists long after I am gone. There is always an underground movement that is sparkling with life and ingenuity.

As an add on to that thought, do you think styles like blues and jazz… ones so strongly associated with what I mentioned earlier, that emotional foundation… are being lost on younger musicians? (And I ask that almost afraid of the answer, since I feel that the music, expression and heart found in the blues plays an amazingly important role in completing the growth and development of a musician.)

Well, I don’t see a loss at all in the young and new generation of musicians. As I mentioned, while traveling around the world I see many young players taking music extremely serious and studying their hearts out to understand the roots of music, and this will bring forth a new generation of amazing and gifted new artists abound.

My generation needs to also address this and pass on, unselfishly, our knowledge and experience in the classroom and in live performance.

I see it happening every day and that gives me plenty of hope for the future of music.

I know Jimi Hendrix has been a big influence for you. From the perspective of a musician that is known primarily as a bass player, is there something from his work that inspires or drives you as a bass player? Or, is it more along the lines of Hendrix simply being Hendrix… a giant that transcends a specific instrument and can create an impact on music in general?

I think it’s both. He was a magical personality and amazing musician that brought us all a gift of genius to the guitar. Innovative and creatively on another level comparatively to what was going on around him. He did this naturally and without forcing the issue. That’s true genius.

As a writer of music, he was also brilliant and unique. He was the complete package of raw natural talent and an otherworldly persona. There is true enlightenment in seeing someone like him perform and absorbing his music on recordings.

He inspired me in many ways and I think all young musicians from my era would agree that he was motivational on all levels! I still love listening to his music and it always inspires me greatly, just like the first day I heard him.

Thinking that you might read often or listen to other musicians, what book(s) or performer(s) would we find you excited by right now?

Haven’t found too much time for reading, and being somewhat dyslexic I choose books when I am going on long trips. I am currently reading a book entitled SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts, a very compelling true story about an escaped convict and his horrifying trials and tribulations.

On a sort of lighter not, I often read scientific journals about everything from quantum physics to NASA planetary exploration.

Music. Well, everything I can get my hands on plus listening to the radio with my 16-year-old daughter is super enlightening. I like have been listening to Kings of Leon, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, Esperanza Spaulding, Rachel Z, Hurts, Maroon 5, Led Zeppelin, John McLaughlin, Bartok and Blind Willie Johnson.

What does 2011 and beyond hold for you? Do you have any plans or projects you can talk about… or releases or tour dates we can look for?

So far 2011 is very hectic.

I am currently touring in support of a new Yellowjackets release for Mack Avenue Records, “TIMELINE.” Celebrating our 30th anniversary and the return of drummer William Kennedy. Awesome!!!

We will be touring throughout the year all around the world and we are even doing some special concerts in Los Angeles and New York in collaboration with Bobby McFerrin.

I also have been touring with the Jeff Lorber Fusion, featuring Eric Marienthal on saxophone, all around the world as well. We just got back from doing the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia, and we were nominated for a Grammy for the recording “NOW IS THE TIME” produced by Jeff Lorber, Bobby Colomby and myself.

I am still working some with Allan Holdsworth and in a band led by drummer Harvey Mason, with Patrice Rushen on piano and keyboards, Bill Summers on percussion and Azar Lawrence on saxophone, called the Chameleon Band.

And I have been touring with a cool Blues/Rock band featuring Robben Ford on guitar and vocals, Michael Landau on guitar and vocals and Gary Novak on drums in support of a recording project I produced called “RENEGADE CREATION.”

I am now mixing two new production projects. The first is a group out of Syracuse New York called ESP, and their 5th upcoming release entitled, “REACH.” And a new SHAPES recording featuring vibraphonist/pianist/composer Roger Burn, Dave Derge on drums, Andy Suzuki on woodwinds, Mike Higgins on guitar, Edwin Livingston on bass, along with featured guests, Mike Stern on guitar, Bela Fleck on banjo and Russell Ferrante on piano.

I am in pre-production stage with two other projects now, a new Marilyn Scott project with arranger/pianist Russell Ferrante, and a new project by German composer Michael Schmidt/TRANSIT that I will co-produce with pianist/keyboardist Mitchell Forman.

I have several more projects on my desk for future productions now totaling 7 more interesting projects that I will be working on over the next year, and I am also doing session for several other projects including an interesting, large ensemble project by Atlanta based pianist/composer/arranger Randy Hoexter.

And last but not least, I have released my third solo project which features co-producer, pianist, keyboardist, arranger, engineer Joe Vannelli entitled, “NIGHTFALL.” It is now available on iTunes along with my first solo recording “ARC.” And we will soon re-release my second solo recording (which was out of print), “RED HEAT” also co-produced by Joe Vannelli.

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I want to thank Jimmy Haslip for being so incredibly generous and considerate. I hope to have the pleasure of meeting him again, and perhaps working on another effort in future.

If you would like to hear some amazing music, or see some live music performed by incredibly talented musicians, you might want to check these links out…

Jimmy Haslip web site


Jimmy’s music… solo work, Yellowjackets, Renegade Creation, and other material… can be found at iTunes for digital download, as well as through several retailers. I recommend picking up the original Yellowjackets as a starter, but you simply can’t go wrong. Timeline would be another outstanding choice.

The photos of Jimmy Haslip shown here were provided by Jimmy. All rights belong to him, and they cannot be used without his permission.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com