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Jon Regen: Higher Ground
by George Graham
(Ropeadope Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/16/2019)
The tradition of the piano-playing singer-songwriter is a long one, actually going back to before the folksingers with their acoustic guitars in the 1960s. But most of the practitioners of the genre tend to be guitar based. There are some notable exceptions like Billy Joel, Elton John, Randy Newman, and Bruce Hornsby. This week we have another commendable pianist-singer-songwriter who has just released a new album. It’s Jon Regen, and his new recording, his sixth, is called Higher Ground.
New Yorker Jon Regen came of age in the 1980s in the midst of synthesizer pop, but he turned his attention on piano to jazz, and was something of a protege to jazz piano great Kenny Barron, and went on to perform with jazz artists including bassist Kyle Eastwood, guitarist Ted Dunbar, and vocalist Jimmy Scott. But he took another detour into the singer-songwriter realm and released his debut album Almost Home, in 2004. In addition to his four previous vocal albums, he also released an instrumental recording called Change Your Mind in 2013. When not performing, he is also the editor of Keyboard magazine and written for other publications including Billboard and the New York Times.
Regan said that he did not intend do a new album anytime soon, but having recently become a father his perspective changed. He also met and started a working relationship with Matt Johnson, the keyboard player in the band Jamiroquai. They wrote a song together, and that eventually led to this album. Regen also called on some of the luminaries he has worked with, some of whom appeared in his previous albums, including Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Chuck Leavell of the Allman Brothers band and the Rolling Stones, guitarists Andy Summers of the Police, and George Marinelli of Bonnie Raitt’s band along with keyboard man Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, and bassist Larry Klein’ known for his work with Joni Mitchell. Producer Matt Johnson provides most of the percussion by sequencing and electronic drum programming, though there are also some guest drummers, including studio ace Jerry Marotta.
With Regen in the mode of being a mostly full-time father, he describes writing lyrics for this album while his son was watching Sesame Street and recording piano parts in his pad while his boy was napping. With Regen in New York and producer Johnson in London, and the guests scattered about, the challenge was to do the album remotely collaborating through the internet. It turns out that everyone on project recorded their parts in their home or home town. But it came together quite well. Regen is a solid composer, an accomplished pianist and a soulful vocalist. Regen said that he obtained a vintage synthesizer around the time he was going to work on the album. It’s frequently heard, sometimes giving a retro sound to some of tracks. The material on the new album ranges from New Orleans grooves to more introspective piano ballads. Lyrically most of the album consists of variations on love songs. But there are others that are more philosophical.
Opening is a track called Wide Awake, which epitomizes the sound of the album, with a soulful groove and the retro synthesizer sound. One can hear a passing resemblance to Steely Dan, especially in the use of the backing vocalists. <<>>
Hole in My Heart is a kind of classic piano singer-songwriter piece. It’s a clever love song. <<>>
The title track Higher Ground was one of the songs Regen says was inspired by becoming a father in his 40s, causing him to reevaluate his life. <<>>
One of the album’s songs offering some social commentary is Who Cares If Everybody Else Knows. It features Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes on the synthesizer. <<>>
There is one mostly instrumental track East Side Blues which has a great groove and features some street sound, presumably from around where Regen lives. <<>>
The track with New Orleans groove is Every Night which seems to be another song that may have come out of Regen reconsidering his life now that he has parental responsibilities. It’s also a love songs of sorts. With its infectious beat, naturally there is a real drummer, Keith Carlock, instead of the sequenced drum machine. <<>>
The piece featuring guitarist Andy Summers is called Before and it’s another of the introspective songs, both musically and lyrically. <<>>
A composition considering the passage of time and the change of generations is called The Last to Go, which I take to be another song to Regen’s young son. Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Hearbreakers is heard on organ on this intimate piano ballad. <<>>
Higher Ground the new release by Jon Regen is a first rate album that reminds us of the how pianist-singer-songwriters can differ from the acoustic guitar playing variety. The songs tend to be a bit more complex harmonically, especially from someone with the jazz background of Regen, but the material is also eminently approachable, and hardly esoteric. While Regen’s piano and producer Matt Johnson’s multiple instruments including sequenced rhythms, dominate the album, the presence of various well-known special guests gives the project a deeper artistic footprint. The songs are nicely performed, and there is a kind of unified band sound, despite the fact that every musician appearing was recorded in separate studios at different times.
On that subject, our audio quality grade is a B-plus. The mix is commendable, especially given the circumstances of the recording. But the album, as so many are these days, was cranked up to be louder by volume compression, robbing the music of some of its ebb and flow.
Jon Regen may not be the kind of household name of some of the star pianist singer-songwriters, but his new album is a most worthwhile addition to the roster.
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