I’ve been meaning to write this column for a long time. Russell Ferrante is my band mate in the Yellowjackets for the last 23 years. He and I teach at the USC Thornton School of Music, and as of late, Russ has been playing in my big band. We’ve grown to be good friends, and our families socialize regularly. I write this blog today to celebrate a dedicated, thoughtful, and caring musician, someone who is a role model to us all.
There are different kinds of composers and improvisers in jazz music. Some player/composers tend to play and write in a stream-of-consciousness style, where ideas flow freely and gracefully in no particular order. Other player/composers improvise and write with a strong sense of development and logic that stems from carefully worked out pathways and devices, taking the listener down a road you feel like you’ve been down before, but are experiencing in a whole new light. Russ is the later of the two. He is a master at finding shapes and configurations that are worked into ingenious compositions and improvisations, always spontaneous and fresh sounding, with a deliberate quality that suggests something written hundreds of years ago.
On Yellowjackets performances we frequently play some of the older tunes, tunes that the band has been playing for 30 years in some cases. More often than not, Russ will bring something new to these tunes in his solos or comping, transforming the tune into something fresh and very different from it’s initial intent. He practices a great deal, and is constantly reinventing his playing and writing. We all look forward to seeing what Russ will bring to the table each night.
Russ is one of the best accompanists I know. He is an extremely empathetic person, most interested in seeing what you have to say. This quality carries over to his playing in a big way. Playing with a pianist like this makes you want to leave lots of space, to instigate an exchange of ideas in musical conversation. Whatever you play as a soloist, Russ will back you up, find an appropriate color to compliment whatever you are playing, and make you sound great. Russ is a master at playing that dual role, where he makes the rhythm section feel incredibly great while responding to the soloist with just the right thing.
In this day and age of self-promotion, multi-tasking, multiple projects and “look at all the wonderful things I have done” mindset, Russ is somewhat of an anomaly. He is generally content to practice every day, write when there is something to write for, ride his bike, and help out in the community. He is happy being in a band and has no great aspirations to be a solo artist. In a nutshell, Russ is all about the music. His musicianship comes straight from the heart and the gut, but with an added keen sense of intellect. He has done his homework as far as studying the blues, jazz tradition, gospel music, classical music, and various musics from around the world. Russ likes being in a band, which is in great part why the Yellowjackets has such a distinct personality. It really is a dynamic ensemble with 4 equal parts. It takes the selflessness of a Russell Ferrante to make this work.
Keyboard magazine is not writing feature articles on Russ, although they should. The jazz magazines don’t usually include Russ in the readers or critics polls, possibly because Russ is one of those unsung heroes of his instrument that keeps bringing it under the radar.
I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to work with Russ. He’s helped me become a better musician and a better person.