Pianist and composer Jason Yeager has no problem detailing the inspiration he draws from literary hero Kurt Vonnegut’s work: “I just love the way that he uses precise, clear language in a rather direct way to get his point across. His writing is sophisticated, but it’s always pretty easy to read. Vonnegut writes page-turners. And I love his sense of imagination, the way he blends elements of science fiction and social criticism and humor. Vonnegut is hilarious, poking fun at the elite, the way the world [operates], and the absurdity of human life and society. Yet that cynicism is paired with a deeply felt love for humanity.”
All of those authorial hallmarks feed into and grow out of the absorbing music on Yeager’s Unstuck in Time: The Kurt Vonnegut Suite. Recorded in late 2021 and released on November 11, 2022—the exact date of the Vonnegut centennial—this magnum opus is clearly bound to the present moment. But in embracing the titular phrase, which nods to Slaughterhouse-Five character Billy Pilgrim’s unmoored nature, the album’s origin story simultaneously looks to different points in the past.
Since the pianist’s grandfather and great-grandfather worked with the writer’s father as partners in the architectural firm of Vonnegut, Wright & Yeager in Indianapolis in the 1940s, that would seem to be the logical place to start. But that’s not really where this tale begins. “Even though I was somewhat aware of this relationship between our families,” Yeager shares, “I didn’t really check out Vonnegut’s writing too early. I was well into my twenties, living in New York, when I started to get into it.” In 2013, at that stage of Yeager’s life, the aforementioned classic came to rest on his nightstand. And while reading and thinking deeply about the protagonist, and entertaining an invitation to bring an original to a gig with saxophonist Kyle Nasser, he penned the wonderfully bewildered “Blues for Billy Pilgrim.” Unbeknownst to anybody at the time, that was a true jumping-off point.
As the months and years went by, and Yeager worked through the pages of other Vonnegut novels and stories, more artistically-aligned instrumentals emerged. Then, when given the opportunity to showcase a project at The Cell Theatre in Manhattan in 2016, the idea for a Vonnegut suite came together. That initial performance saw the birth of a septet that spoke to big-band and orchestral ambitions, and the group’s strengths and sensibilities deepened in the years ramping up to this release. Tapping works like Vonnegut’s Timequake, The Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle to fuel his expansive writing, Yeager creates smart settings with well-wrought counterpoint while leveraging the talents of distinctive personalities including alternating multi-reedists Lucas Pino and Patrick Laslie, chair-swapping trumpeters Alphonso Horne and Riley Mulherkar, and trombonist Mike Fahie in the winds department; vibraphonist Yuhan Su, bassist Danny Weller and drummer Jay Sawyer in the rhythm sphere; and guest alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, who enhances two numbers. Brilliantly blurring lines between composition and improvisation, that outfit delivers music that, reflective of its influence’s style, is both complex and highly accessible.
Save for one outlier—“So It Goes,” sewn together in post-production with snippets of outtakes and spoken word recordings—every number was created live in the studio. And Yeager shares credit with the musicians, plus co-producers Andy Warren and Frank Carlberg, for the clarity in the resultant album. In fairness, he also praises the contributions of an important spectral presence standing by his side: “Although I composed and arranged all of the music on this record, I always joke that the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut was my unwitting co-composer. In a sense, it’s almost like the Yeager and Vonnegut families are once again collaborating.”