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Jason Yeager – What’s On Your Playlist?

Jazzed Magazine • January/February 2020What's on Your Playlist? • February 17, 2020

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Originally from Boston, Jason Yeager is a New York-based pianist and composer who creates music that is deeply expressive and multi-faceted, defying convention while reveling in the traditions of jazz, blues, 20th century classical music, and Latin American folk rhythms. An adroit and sensitive accompanist as well as an imaginative bandleader, his newest album, New Songs of Resistance (Outside in Music), features chamber-jazz arrangements of songs by nueva canción icons like Victor Jara, Violeta Parra, and León Gieco, as well as original compositions. The Boston Globe calls the record a “musical reflection of troubled times and a search for affirmation nonetheless.”

As a soloist and bandleader, Yeager has performed at such venues as Carnegie Hall, the Blue Note, and Smalls Jazz Club, as well as internationally at festivals and clubs in Latin America and Asia. He’s performed and collaborated with artists like Luciana Souza, George Garzone, Ran Blake, Ayn Inserto, Jason Palmer, Noah Preminger, Sean Jones, and Jason Anick, among others. A committed educator, he is assistant professor of piano at Berklee College of Music. Yeager is an honors graduate of the Tufts University/New England Conservatory Double Degree Program, and holds a master of music from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute.

1. Chick Corea TrioTrilogy 2

This album feels full circle for me. I fell in love with Chick’s playing and writing when I was first getting serious about jazz in high school, and only recently have I returned to really digging into his music. A follow-up to the 2014 live album Trilogy, this live double CD reflects an astounding connection among three master performers and improvisers: Chick Corea, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Brian Blade. It’s fiery chamber music of the utmost sensitivity, with a lot of deep listening. All three musicians are virtuosos on their instruments, but they also display profound patience and an unerring commitment to groove. Among my favorite moments is Christian McBride’s bass solo on the first track, Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean,” where Corea and Blade’s comping has this incredible freshness and vitality, as though anything could happen, actively responding to McBride’s rhythmic ideas but never getting in the way of his solo.

2. Camila Meza & the Nectar OrchestraAmbar

From the very first notes of “Kallfu,” the first track on Ambar, you feel this wave of energy, especially from the string section that accompanies Camila Meza’s voice – it’s profoundly alive. Camila Meza has been around the New York scene for several years now, but I first heard her live, as a bandleader, at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival in May. I was impressed with her vocal and guitar prowess to be sure, but also with her songwriting and use of folk music and rhythms from her native Chile and beyond. Of particular power is the very moving “This Is Not America,” which is certainly apropos given the troubled times we are experiencing right now. In fact, this track is a cover of a Pat Metheny-David Bowie collaboration from the 1980s! Meza gives it her own personal, 21st-century treatment, at once accessible and modern. A beautiful, moving solo version of the Tomás Mendez song “Cucurrucucu Paloma” closes the album, a lovely little coda to a record of grand orchestrations and ambitions.

3. Tatiana Parra & Vardan Ovsepian, Fractal LimitLighthouse

I’ve recently been checking this first album by the duo “Fractal Limit,” comprised of pianist Vardan Ovsepian and singer Tatiana Parra, from 2014. Most of the music is wordless, with some pieces in Portuguese. Each piece is like a vignette or meditation exploring a particular mood. I love how Vardan will spin a kaleidoscope of colors in his right-hand lines, juxtaposed with a repetitive rhythmic vamp in his left hand. His approach to composition feels rooted in a kind of minimalism to me, with exciting twists and turns that emerge during the improvisational sections. Tatiana’s voice is a lovely and expressive instrument that blends perfectly with the piano – her vocal control is astounding on virtuoso pieces like “Joist 2.” What’s more, she and Vardan have an incredible rapport, breathing together as one, much as a chamber ensemble might. This duo brings the heat live, too, as I discovered at the 2nd annual Festival Internacional de Jazz en Costa Rica this past August, when we shared a double bill. Turns out they are awesome people as well, and have a new duo record on the way!

4. VariousThe Finest of Folk Bluesmen

I recently found this on vinyl at Westsider Records in Manhattan, and it reveals what a vast universe the blues is. There’s perhaps less acoustic, “Mississippi Delta” blues than I expected, but some outstanding piano and vocals from Memphis Slim, grunge-y electric guitar work from John Lee Hooker, and a couple swinging “jump blues” tracks. The compilation was released by Bethlehem Records in 1976 and is a solid survey of mid-century blues masters, some of whom are new to me. I’m always deeply moved by the blues, in all its multi-hued expressiveness, and keep coming back to it.

5. Ray Barretto Rican/Struction

An ode to his native Puerto Rico, percussionist Ray Barretto and Fania Records put out this landmark salsa-Latin jazz record in the late 1970s. It’s full of catchy coros, incredible grooves, and infectious montunos from pianist and arranger Oscar Hernandez. “Ya Vez,” with its slap-bass allusion to ‘70’s funk, features a stellar piano solo by Hernandez. The last cut, “Tumbao Africano,” has a catchy chorus and genius horn arrangement.

6. GesualdoComplete Sacred Music for Five Voices

Performed by the Oxford Camerata under the direction of Jeremy Summerly, these pieces by Gesualdo are utterly beautiful. At first listen, they might seem a typical outgrowth of the Gregorian Chant tradition, albeit with greater harmonic complexity. But Gesualdo was unique among Renaissance composers, using a high degree of chromaticism and unusual harmonies that take you unexpected places emotionally. I can definitely feel the composer’s connection with the eternal when I listen to this music. Well over four hundred years after it was written, this music feels fresh and alive.

7. Ella FitzgeraldThe Intimate Ella

This melancholy duo record of bluesy ballads is unlike most other Ella Fitzgerald recordings I know. The record is also known by another name, “Let No Man Write My Epitaph,” which was a 1960 movie (based on a novel) that featured Ella singing a number of these songs. Pianist Paul Smith provides ingenious and unassuming accompaniment parts that perfectly complement Ella’s phrasing. He never solos and plays only what is necessary to color the mood and support the lyric that Ella always delivers with deep feeling and swing.

8. Guillermo Klein and Los GuachosCristal

I love Guillermo Klein’s newest album with his longstanding band, “Los Guachos.” The record features Klein’s trademark polyrhythms, invigorating odd-meter grooves, and distinctive brand of Latin Jazz-minimalism. I am deeply inspired by Klein’s combining modern jazz vocabulary with folk rhythms from his native Argentina. I also love the way Klein can make an eleven-piece band sound bigger and more orchestral. And every soloist in this group breathes fire! Fernando Huergo, who also plays bass on my new record, is a longtime member of this group and plays a fantastic solo on “Volver.” Another highlight is alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s dialogue with drummer Jeff Ballard on the track “Nos Mirarán Pasar.”

9. Violeta ParraGracias a la Vida

Violeta Parra is a founding mother of the “Nueva Canción” (“New Song”) Movement, which began in Chile and Argentina in the 1950s and 1960s. This survey of her songs is powerful and moving, featuring lots of traditional folk forms and rhythms, most prominently the 6/8 cueca. Check out how her singing floats effortlessly over the groove on the iconic title track, “Gracias a la Vida” – it’s almost like how the Delta bluesman Robert Johnson would elongate or shorten sung phrases according to how he felt in the moment, changing chords not according to a pre-planned form, but only according to his feeling. As a result, there is this organic, spontaneous feeling to Violeta’s singing that is very alive for me – a sort of Andean blues! I arranged “Gracias a la Vida” on my newest album, and Parra’s sense of rhythmic freedom and unique phrasing of the melody inspired the musical choices I made.

Jason Yeager’s latest disc, New Songs of Resistance (Outside in Music), dropped on October 4, 2019.

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