Jazz pianist Jason Yeager has a long history of reading and interacting with the books of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It began the first time he pulled a Vonnegut book down from his father’s bookshelf and read it – I’m not sure which one it was, but it made an impression.
“I consider Vonnegut to be a virtuoso writer, but one who also writes page turners,” Yeager says. “He doesn’t complicate his language unnecessarily; it’s very pleasurable and easy to read his works. I see him as something of a Thelonious Monk figure in the world of fiction, because he seems to break a lot of the rules that I remember being taught in English class. It also took a long time for both of them to find wider acceptance and appeal. Monk is one of my musical touchstones, and Vonnegut has a similarly unique voice and is unapologetically himself.”
I have a similar relationship with Vonnegut, whom I discovered in high school. The teacher in the senior-level English class that I attended as a sophomore had a shelf of books we could check out, and my eye was caught by the cover and title of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. It literally changed my life and the way I thought about writing, and I loved the deadpan humor when dealing with deadly serious subjects.
Yeager is a Boston-born, New York-based pianist and composer, married to Broadway singer and actress Julie Benko. He also teaches piano at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He didn’t set out to create a jazz suite inspired by Vonnegut’s oeuvre. He wrote the earliest composition on the album, “Blues for Billy Pilgrim,” shortly after reading what I consider to be Vonnegut’s opus, Slaughterhouse-Five, inspired by the adventures of its titular character who has come mentally “unstuck in time” due to the trauma he suffered during WWII. Then, over about a decade, every Vonnegut work Yeager read seemed to inspire another piece of music, until a full album seemed inevitable.
He’s turned that vision into reality with the help of a stellar nonette with himself on piano, Danny Weller on bass and Jay Sawyer on drums, that rhythm section augmented by Yuhan Su on vibraphone. The front line includes Lucas Pino and Patrick Laslie on multiple reeds including tenor sax, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, and on brass Alphonso Horne and Riley Mulherkar (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Mike Fahie on trombone. Miguel Zenón guests on alto sax on two tracks.
Yeager has very nicely captured Vonnegut’s eccentricity, and his thematic and stylistic depth with a musical pallette to match – aided and abetted by the varied colors and styles accessed by the big band.
For a long time my favorite Vonnegut book was The Sirens of Titan, and apparently Yeager found it a rich vein to mine because there are three compositions here that reference it. The airy, bluesy “Ballad For Old Salo” finds Yeager and vibraphonist Su flitting around each other like fireflies around a porch light, while Weller contributes a tenderly pensive line on acoustic bass. The mysterious “Unk’s Fate” combines the playful and the ominous, with dark noir chords on the vibes and a martial base from the rhythm section. And the closing track, “Tralfamadorian Rhapsody,” is a great closer and one of my three favorites. It’s a truly time shifting arrangement to match the plasticity of time in The Sirens of Titan and indeed in much of Vonnegut’s fiction: Sawyer’s hip hop influenced drumming, a bass line right out of 70s funk fusion, and Mulherkar’s inventive trumpet blended with Yeager’s subtle synthesizer. (I hope it is an analog synthesizer as it sounds like it is, which totally fits with the 1970s vibe of the book.)
Another favorite is “Bokonon,” inspired by Cat’s Cradle. It’s a tantalizing and tasty blend of modern bop and fusion, and in fact reminds me of Coltrane’s “Airegin” with Zenón’s alto in a skittish duet with drummer Sawyer – and it really sings with jazz rock fusion energy with Su joins in on vibes and Weller on electric bass.
“You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do,” is the creed of Vonnegut’s alter ego Kilgore Trout, which appears in 1997’s semi-autobiographical Timequake. It begins with the band members reciting the creed together a few times, and the tune is a Brubeck-ian exploration of rhythm’s intersection with melody. Or else it’s a manic score to a 1950s’ futurist film. Laslie turns in a tour-de-force tenor solo, and Su really gets to strut her stuff on vibes. “Now It’s the Women’s Turn” references the lesser-known 1987 novel “Bluebeard,” and it plays up the ensemble’s big band sound with Latin elements and a scorching clarinet solo from Pino. The mock-patriotic “Blue Fairy Godmother” – inspired by Mother Night opens with a sour turn on the opening stanza of “The Star Spangled Banner.” “Rudy’s Waltz” has a bit of a stage musical feel to it with a at-on-the-keyboard piano melody and intricate counterpoint among flugelhorn, trombone and clarinet.
That “Blues For Billy Pilgrim” really is the centerpiece of the album, though, a slinky blues that builds to a chaotic climax. Also worth noting is “Nancy’s Revenge,” which references one of Vonnegut’s most troubling stories, as a modern reader looking back on the casual misogyny and even rape culture of the title story in one of Vonnegut’s books of short fiction. I hadn’t thought about this story (originally published in Playboy) in years, although the book used to be one of my favorites that I re-read many times, and now I’m appalled by it. Yeager’s tune does these mixed feelings justice as Laslie turns in an amazing bass clarinet solo of barely subdued rage, in duet with Yeager’s keyboard flights that suggest, perhaps, the panicked fluttering of a captive bird.
Vonnegut once said in an interview that he really would have liked to be a jazz pianist. We should all be glad that he stuck with writing, for Slaughterhouse Five if nothing else. But Jason Yeager and this ensemble have done great honor to Vonnegut’s stories and the humane, confused, questing spirit behind them.
(Sunnyside Records, 2022)
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