Yellowjackets is an American jazz fusion quartet.
Formed in 1977 and known originally as the Robben Ford Group, the eventually-named Yellowjackets consisted of Robben Ford, Russell Ferrante, Jimmy Haslip and Ricky Lawson, all top-notch L.A. session musicians. Ford had originally assembled this lineup to record his 1979 solo album The Inside Story which was released under the name of Robben Ford. During this initial period the band's sound combined elements of blues, jazz fusion, and progressive rock with Ford contributing vocals. Over the next year the group began moving in a more democratic direction; eliminating Ford's vocals and embracing a more commercially oriented jazz-funk approach overall, the band signed with Warner Bros. as Yellowjackets. Ford, however, was still signed to a separate record contract with Elektra and ended up listed as a guest artist on the band's 1981 debut under the Yellowjackets name. During the tour to support the album the lineup was augmented by second guitarist Michael Landau. Eventually Ford was replaced by saxophone player Richard Elliot who appeared only on the "Mirage a Trois" album before switching places in 1984 with Tower of Power alto saxophonist Marc Russo. Drummer Ricky Lawson left in 1986 to tour with Lionel Richie. Select Yellowjackets songs were featured on The Weather Channel's Local on the 8s segments, with the Ferrante composition "Matinee Idol" being the most well-known.
While Yellowjackets made their 1981 debut as a jazz-fusion band that highlighted guitarist Robben Ford, the group's sound became more R&B-oriented after Ford's departure with Marc Russo's crisp alto saxophone and soaring high-register solos. With original members Russell Ferrante on keyboards and electric bassist Jimmy Haslip, and new drummer William Kennedy, the band found its own R&B-ish sound, sometimes playing original compositions that sounded like Joe Zawinul at his most melodic.
Starting out on Warner Brothers in the early '80s, the Yellowjackets moved to MCA/GRP in 1986, where they released a string of well-received albums. They also appeared with two songs on the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. They are frequently on stage at festivals like Indy Jazz Fest.
In the '90s, Russo chose to go out on his own and plays regularly with The Doobie Brothers, and his replacement, Bob Mintzer (on tenor and bass clarinet), added more jazz credibility to the group's music. They moved back to Warner Brothers in 1995 for several albums before moving to the Heads Up label for the live two-CD set Mint Jam in 2002. 2003 saw the release of their first studio album in five years, Time Squared. Three years later, the band celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary as an ensemble with the release of the live album Twenty Five.
In May 2008, the Yellowjackets released their 20th release, Lifecycle, also on HeadsUp International. Lifecycle features guitarist and label-mate Mike Stern, making it the first Yellowjackets record in 15 years to feature guitar (1994's Run For Your Life featured Robben Ford on the track Even Song). The album has been nominated for the 2009 GRAMMY Awards in the category of Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Russell Ferrante has also been nominated in the category of Best Instrumental Composer for the track "Claire's Closet."
On January 30, 2012, Felix Pastorius announced on the social media website, Facebook, that he will be replacing original bassist Jimmy Haslip for about a year. "I guess its official, I'm a yellowjacket!" Pastorius stated in his Facebook post, he said that Haslip is "healthy and happy and just wanted to take the year off to focus on other things...". Consequently, in June, 2013, this new constellation released a new studio album, A Rise in the Road, with Felix Pastorius on bass – on some of the tracks actually playing Jaco Pastorius' original fretless bass, loaned from its current owner, Metallica's Robert Trujillo.