The Yellowjackets' Marcus Baylor: Total Awareness

by Paul Wells

“I don’t hear music in categories; I hear music as a sound.”

The Yellowjackets are a bit of a mystery in a jazz world that likes to conveniently categorize its various styles. You can’t describe them as smooth jazz or fusion, but they’re certainly not a revisionist bebop group either. At times, they sound like a classical chamber group or a grooving funk band. Echoes of Gospel and world music are prevalent, too. All of these influences blend together into a natural, sleek, and unpretentious style that seems to speak to listeners in a way rarely found in today’s corporate music scene.

It seems that the bandmembers simply write the way they want to. The only restrictions on their playing styles are that they have to play to fit the music. It sounds like a simple and logical concept, but ask yourself how many groups, especially in jazz, are able to be this free?

It makes perfect sense that these same words can be said about Marcus Baylor, The Yellowjackets’ drummer since 2000. It would be a disservice to simply describe him as a virtuoso, although he certainly is. Like his band, Marcus has cultivated a style of playing that transcends restrictions such as genre and category. He’s listened to and soaked up every style of music and is able to play whatever fits the song.

Especially influential to Baylor were his formative years playing in his family’s vibrant Pentecostal church, as well as his time in New York studying jazz at The New School. His drumming is simultaneously assertive and following. Most impressively, Marcus has matured into an intriguing soloist. Many drummers who are gifted with an abundance of chops have little sense of musical phrasing and drama. Marcus, however, has an innate awareness of space, which makes his solos unique and very listenable.

Check out his short solo on “Double Nickel,” from The Yellowjackets’ latest release, Lifecycle. Marcus plays short spurts of impressively “chopsy” activity, but always has the taste to leave a bit of space after each phrase to let the listener digest what was just heard. This type of respect for the music and the audience is rare these days, and shows the kind of care, selflessness, and maturity that Marcus’s family worked so hard to instill in him. The fact that he does this while still managing to make an artistic statement is even more impressive.

This year has found Marcus and The Yellowjackets teaming up with jazz guitar firebrand Mike Stern and recording the aforementioned Lifecycle, one of their finest collections of music. Along with keyboardist Russ Ferrante, saxophonist Bob Mintzer, and bassist Jimmy Haslip, Stern blends into The Yellowjackets’ sound seamlessly, contributing his distinctive playing and writing style. Marcus keeps the aggregation grounded, grooving, and inspired throughout.

The band is hitting the road in serious form as well, having completed a run of the major European jazz festivals and the vibrant clubs of the American West Coast. Next they head back to Europe before hitting Asia and the Pacific. Modern Drummer caught up with Marcus while he was decompressing in between tours. We discussed his recent activities, as well as his experiences studying and playing jazz and how that helped shape his style.

MD: You were just in Europe for a month with The Yellowjackets. Is that a typical length for one of your tours?

Marcus: Usually we do about three weeks, but not at this time of the year. July is intense, because you have all the European festivals happening during the same month. You may have a gig in Italy one day, and then the next day you have to go to Spain. We average two or three hours of sleep a night, get a wake-up call at 4:00 or 5:00 A.M., catch a flight or two, show up at the next venue, soundcheck, and play the gig. When you go to Europe, it’s a great experience and great exposure, but at the same time, you’re really hitting the road.

MD: Not much time for sightseeing?

Marcus: I try to exercise every day, so my sightseeing consists of jogging around the town.

MD: Was Mike Stern on this tour with you?

Marcus: Yeah. Mike brought out a whole other side of the band on Lifecycle.

MD: Have the dynamics and volume levels changed for you, having a louder guitarist like Mike playing in the band?

Marcus: The Yellowjackets started in the late ’70s with Robben Ford playing guitar, so I look at Mike Stern coming in as being a part of what we already had been doing. Stern has a lot of different sides to him. When you hear him play a ballad, it’s very sensitive. But when he rocks, he really rocks.

The first time we hooked up was at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Mike was the artist in residence, and he chose us as one of the bands to play with. After we did that gig, we realized we needed to do a record together.

Read the rest of this interview with Marcus Baylor in the December issue of Modern Drummer on sale now in print and digital.