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A Bluegrass Playing Jazzer, Jason Keiser



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to a busy guitarist around the San Jose and greater San Francisco Bay Area, Jason Keiser.  

Though jazz is his first love, Jason Keiser keeps himself active playing both jazz and bluegrass gigs. In this article, I ask him about what it’s like living in both of these musical worlds.

Jason Keiser

JB:  Talk about when you started to play guitar and what inspired you to play jazz guitar.

JK:  I started playing guitar when I was 13 or 14 years old after being inspired by my older sister, Krisanne, and my 85-year-old Nana. Being self-taught, I learned chords from popular songs. After a year or so of teaching myself, I began taking guitar lessons and when my guitar teacher recommended listening to Joe Pass I was blown away! Joe was the first to inspire me to learn and play jazz guitar.

JB:  Talk about the things you appreciated most about your combined studies in jazz and bluegrass music at East Tennessee State University.

JK:  Jazz and bluegrass share musical connections most heavily within the realm of improvisation. Realizing these stylistic connections while studying and playing these different types of music was incredibly eye-opening for me. I learned to appreciate how the fusing of the two different styles complement one another in a new musical way. I studied with one of my favorite bluegrass guitarists, Wyatt Rice, an incredible flat picker, and the younger brother of famous flat picker Tony Rice. I was using all the jazz theory and improvisational concepts I learned while working with Wyatt on difficult Space Grass and New Acoustic Music tunes. The two musical genres benefited from each other as I was using my bluegrass chops in jazz while using my jazz vocabulary, new chord voicings, and theory knowledge to improve my Bluegrass and Space Grass playing as well as forge my personal style on the guitar.

Listen to Thomas Cassell blend jazz and bluegrass with Jason on Jason’s original “Tynerism”…

JB:  Talk about how Rick Vandivier, lecturer at Stanford University, influenced you as a player.

JK:  Rick has been an incredible influence on my playing for many years in that he helped me expand my chordal knowledge and play in different jazz styles, taught me new scales, and was always encouraging me to play various styles of music. His melodic sensibility, nuanced chordal work, and strength in multiple styles all have impacted me greatly. I’m honored to have studied with him for all the years I did through community college and my master’s degree at San Jose State University. We had the pleasure of working together on my second record The Axe Axis where I featured Rick on “Gentle Piece” by Kenny Wheeler and the classic jazz standard “Stella by Starlight” by Victor Young. He influenced me as much in the classroom as he did in the music community and introduced me to many of his colleagues including the prolific jazz guitarist John Stowell.

JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why? 

JK:  The first jazz guitar album that was incredibly influential for me, and I believe is one of the cornerstones of solo jazz guitar is Joe Pass’ Virtuoso 1, and also Virtuoso 2 as well as the third. Virtuoso was one of the first jazz guitar records I heard that influenced me to pursue jazz guitar in an advanced and professional way.  Joe’s interpretation of beautiful jazz standards playing chord melodies is something I go back to often for inspiration. The record is incredibly swinging and also at times sounds like two or more guitarists playing at once. This record influences both my solo jazz and bluegrass guitar playing. 

The second albums are the two records Bill Evans and Jim Hall did together Undercurrent and Intermodulation. Jim’s ability to intertwine lines and accompany Bill while not overplaying or overpowering always leaves me awestruck. The interplay on those records helped me understand the importance of listening and not overplaying while accompanying another musician. Those records impacted me heavily when I made my debut recording Conversations with Jason featuring my former professor, professional jazz pianist, and educator Jason Day. 

The third jazz guitar album that is highly influential to me is one that many jazz

guitarists may not be aware of, The Tony Rice Unit’s Backwaters. This record made me realize that I could approach playing jazz on my acoustic guitar, while also blending elements of bluegrass, flamenco, and other inspiring styles. I had the fortunate opportunity to study with Wyatt Rice, who was on the official record playing rhythm guitar and I learned as much as I could from him in our lessons from the record. These styles, approaches to playing acoustic guitar, and arrangements of the classic jazz standards such as “My Favorite Things” and “On Green Dolphin Street” continue to inspire and influence me.

JB:  Talk about how Mimi Fox influenced you as a player.

JK:  Mimi Fox has influenced me greatly, especially with how I approach being aware of my sense of time when playing as a solo jazz guitarist and with any group. When I play with Mimi, the timing is always solid. As John Stowell once said, Mimi and I are kindred spirits based on how we both feel time and placement of the beat, have a shared ability of chops, and a love of acoustic music. In 2022, I wrote a tune for Mimi entitled “Mimi’s Mode” that features her and I in a duet playing a modal vehicle that melodically develops into a swinging’ bop style minor blues tune. Mimi inspires me to listen which is paramount to being open and, in the moment, when playing. Most of all, Mimi encourages me to play from the heart which I know is the most important thing.

JB:  You have performed with guitarist John Stowell. Talk about John’s impact on your playing.

JK:  I’ve had the opportunity to perform with John Stowell in many different settings and record three albums together. I am always incredibly honored to share the stage and studio with him. John inspires me to always be in the moment and his sense of time, feel, and his style is very unique. He inspires me to play with more implied time versus playing every part of the beat. This really challenges me to feel the time internally when I’m improvising or comping and leaving space for someone. John also inspires me to expand and have a strong sense of chordal vocabulary up and down the fretboard while still keeping in how to best accompany any instrument in any setting. I especially love playing with John in both duo and two guitar group projects/bands, where we share the job of keeping the rhythm section together while complimenting one another on our respective guitars without getting in each other’s way. It’s a beautiful dynamic I was very excited to continue exploring in our recent collaborations on my record, Shaw’s Groove on OA2 Records, and the latest and upcoming new project, a chamber jazz quintet exploring the music of Kenny Wheeler, which features Erik Jekabson, trumpet/flugelhorn, Michael Zilber, tenor and soprano saxophone and Danielle Wertz, vocals.

JB:  What do you appreciate most about the Ovation flat-top guitar that you use?

JK:  What I appreciate most about my vintage ‘77 Ovation Legend is the clarity and brightness of sound that the guitar has in my hands. It’s one of the loudest Ovations I’ve ever played and heard. Most of all, I love how it can be utilized in many different stylistic settings and musical situations, whether I’m playing it on a solo jazz gig, accompanying a vocalist, playing solo bluegrass guitar, performing and recording with a string band, or a jazz quintet. I’m proud to be the new owner of it as it was previously owned by my mentor and former teacher, Wyatt Rice.

JB:  Do you think differently when improvising in a bluegrass style as opposed to jazz?

JK:  I don’t think differently when improvising in these different styles. At all times, I try my best to think about myself as a horn player whether I’m improvising in a bluegrass or jazz context, and am constantly considering how to play melodically, use space, and serve the musical moment which is most important to me. The harmonic content is vastly different between these two contrasting styles, but I always approach them as if I were playing a trumpet but on the guitar. Hypothetically, I ask myself “How do I expand on the melody while still leaving enough space for the music to grow and expand over time?” When playing both styles, I also try to breathe before starting a phrase, so in general, I’m always thinking as if I’m a horn player which keeps my improvising sounding more melodic.

JB:  Talk a little about the jazz scene in San Jose, California, and the kind of gigs you do.

JK:  The jazz scene in San Jose is somewhat small but some great things are going on at all times! I’ve had the opportunity to perform and record at a great club, Mama Kin, (which was previously the famous

Cafe Stritch), I also play at different venues such as Five Points, where a jam session is held every week, the San Jose Jazz Festival, and various other restaurants, clubs, and wineries in the greater Bay Area.

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