Jason Yeager Pursues a Sociopolitical Path

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Pianist Jason Yeager’s latest album reflects his strong interest in Latin American composers.

(Photo: Simon Yu)

Pianist Jason Yeager has a penchant for combining his artistry with an interest in cultural and societal issues. That combination is particularly potent on his new album, New Songs Of Resistance (Outside In).

Yeager already had established impressive credentials even before the recording was released last fall. Through a dual-degree program involving New England Conservatory and Tufts University, he earned degrees in music and international relations, and then earned a master’s degree from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute. He currently is an assistant professor at Berklee, where he has taught since 2012.

In addition to performing with the Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra, Yeager’s collaborators have included violinist Jason Anick and saxophonist Randal Despommier, with whom he will give a duo performance on Carnegie Hall on May 20.

“When I decided to get my master’s, I had to craft a thesis with a recording,” Yeager explained during a January interview at the Jazz Education Network conference in New Orleans. “I recalled the time during junior year in college when I spent a semester in Argentina, where I learned about nueva canción protest music. And I went back to that music as a foundation for my thesis.”

Nueva canción, or “new song,” arose in the 1950s and ’60s in South America and combined folkloric rhythms and instrumentation with lyrics that promoted democracy and criticized political dictatorships. Yeager explored that music deeply, especially artists such as Chile’s Víctor Jara and Violeta Parra, Brazil’s Chico Buarque and Argentina’s León Gieco.

Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, who was Yeager’s primary teacher at NEC, encouraged his efforts to combine jazz with Latin American folkloric rhythms.

“When I got back, Danilo asked me to play Monk’s ‘Ask Me Now’ using chacarera, an Argentinian folk rhythm,” Yeager recalled. “Pérez used folk rhythms on Monk tunes on [his 1996 album] PanaMonk. I see now the seeds for [my] latest record were planted years earlier.

“In coming up with my thesis, those nueva canción songs made me think about the relationship between music and politics; I wanted to explore how that relationship might work today. I took a real deep dive, not just into rhythmic and stylistic ideas, but into the history and context of that music.

“I put everything I had into the recording and hired the best musicians around Berklee. Everyone on the record is on faculty or a student. And everyone played great.”

On the new album, Yeager recruited three vocalists—Erini, Farayi Malek and Mirella Costa—to help him explore songs by Jara, Parra, Buarque and Gieco. He wrote new arrangements for a piano trio setting (with electric bass), as well as ones that incorporate other instrumentation, including trumpet, flugelhorn, clarinet, bass clarinet and cello.

“I love that blend of strings, woodwinds and brass,” Yeager explained. “I was trying to get an orchestral feeling from as few instruments as possible, and get a wide range of color and timbre that formed a warm foundation that enveloped the [singer’s] voice sonically.”

Yeager also wrote his own protest songs, including “The Facts” and “In Search Of Truth.” The latter composition has lyrics that critique leaders who make misleading statements.

“Once the album was done,” Yeager said, “we played it [onstage]. In Washington, D.C., a man said, ‘My politics are directly opposed to yours. But that didn’t once stop me from enjoying what you were doing. Freedom of expression is what makes this country what it is. You need to keep going and if you stop, that’s when we have a real problem.’ That was really moving to me.” DB




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May 2021
Shabaka Hutchings
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