release date: october 4, 2019
About jon Regen
“Jon Regen has a rare combination of elements - virtuosic playing ability, soulful singing, and a strong songwriting talent, all developing more and more as he grows and grows as an artist through the years. Give him a freaking listen!” – Bruce Hornsby
“It’s something of a small miracle,” says New York-based singer, songwriter and pianist Jon Regen about his upcoming album, Higher Ground, due October 4, 2019 via Ropeadope. “It’s an album I wasn’t planning on making,” Regen explains. “When I became a parent, my touring and recording life was immediately put on hold.”
Produced by Jamiroquai keyboardist Matt Johnson, Higher Ground includes musical performances by legends like Andy Summers of The Police, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Chuck Leavell of The Rolling Stones and Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran. The album announces Regen as a formidable talent with the rarest of gifts - an original voice that speaks to the human condition with authority and hope. Regen’s songs define our times, but are meant to last for all time.
Regen knows a thing or two about navigating the unexpected. Coming of age in the 1980s, he nourished himself on a steady diet of MTV and synth pop. And while he could have spent his life in search of New Wave glory, he instead moved to New York City and became a protégé of jazz piano great Kenny Barron, toured with artists like Little Jimmy Scott and Kyle Eastwood, and slowly carved-out a name for himself as a solo artist who defied easy categorization.
Like Bruce Hornsby before him, Regen creates infectious melodies that often belie the music’s harmonic sophistication. Like Randy Newman, he draws on the richness of the American musical vernacular, distilling an ocean into a creek the artist can call his own. It’s on the axis of those seemingly diverse worlds that Jon Regen’s sound is born. It's also on the axis of differing worlds that Higher Ground sprang to life.
Having experienced a new level of artistic success following his critically-acclaimed 2015 album Stop Time (produced by Mitchell Froom and featuring members of Elvis Costello’s Imposters), Regen wasn’t eager to rush into the studio for a follow-up. “I knew I wasn’t going to make a record of just any songs, produced just any way,” he recalls. “I never gave up the idea of recording again, but I knew I didn’t want to make the same album I did last time. I wanted to be inspired.”
Parenthood helped Regen meditate on several factors. “I wondered if, in this new divided world – and in this era of instant internet fame, if music still resonated the way I remembered it could.”
With no stream of roadwork planned (he was too busy being a full-time dad), Regen played local shows around New York City and dug into his work as the Editor of Keyboard Magazine. “For the first time in decades, I had a regular jazz gig,” he says. “I became reacquainted with the piano in a way I hadn’t been able to while I was constantly touring. I also threw myself into my writing work, relishing the chance to explore the inspiration behind other people’s music.” Then in September 2018, Jamiroquai’s Matt Johnson invited Regen to the group’s gig at the Forest Hills Tennis Center in Queens, New York.
The location proved remarkable: Regen’s parents had lived on the same street during the 1960s. Possibly more remarkable was the gig itself: “I saw 14,000 people dancing to funk music in the New York rain that night, and my faith in the healing power of music was instantly restored.”
When Regen and Johnson met at the afterparty, they hit it off instantly, despite being something of an unlikely pairing. “Matt’s a proper British synth whiz, and I’m a gravely-voiced New York singer/songwriter. But I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something to this.’”
The pair wrote the song “Wide Awake” as a way of testing the waters - with Johnson in London and Regen at home in New York City. And despite the distance, the duo struck creative magic. “It was just this great marriage of Matt’s studio wizardry and my songwriting and piano styles,” Regen explains. “Funnily enough, that song would never have been born had I not bought an old Roland Juno-60 synthesizer and started fooling around with it on top of my Steinway grand piano. But once I did, I knew I was onto something fresh. It was a sound that was new to me, so I chased it.”
Johnson says, “When he sent me his idea, I was struck by the rich quality of his voice. As the track progressed, I learned that Jon could also play great jazz piano. For me, this album shows off all the best in Jon - great songs, great piano and a truly distinctive voice.”
But a lingering question remained: Could the duo record an entire album without anyone ever playing in the same place at the same time? They were about to find out.
For Regen, making the album became a mission unto itself, regardless of the challenges the pair faced. “I wrote lyrics while my son watched ‘Sesame Street,’ and recorded piano and vocals in my apartment while he napped,” he says. “Before we knew it, the project was materializing before our eyes.”
No stranger to formidable companions, Regen enlisted an all-star cast that reads like the lineup of a supergroup; keyboardists Benmont Tench, Chuck Leavell, Ricky Peterson (David Sanborn, Fleetwood Mac) and Matt Rollings (Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson,) signed-on, as did Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes.
“For someone who used to air drum to Rio as a kid, hearing Nick’s synth work on my music was positively surreal,” Regen says. “In a lot of ways, this record is about the moment when your heroes become your peers.”
Tench says that there was never a second thought about lending his talents to the album. “Not only is Jon an annoyingly great piano player,” the veteran keyboardist says, “he isn’t sitting still in the songwriting department, either: this is a laudable leap forward in both style and expression.”
Having scored a premiere rhythm section for his previous album, Regen was once again drawn to top players like bassists Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell) and Tim Lefebvre (David Bowie, Tedeschi Trucks Band), and drummers Keith Carlock (Steely Dan) and Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel). Previous Regen collaborators like guitarists Andy Summers (The Police) and George Marinelli (Bonnie Raitt) return here, as do cellist Julia Kent and Swiss harmonica ace Grégoire Maret. And as impressive as the guest list on Higher Ground is, what’s even more miraculous is that every musician played his or her parts in their respective hometowns. The entire album was recorded remotely, across different cities, oceans and countries.
Listening to Higher Ground, it’s not hard to imagine what led musical luminaries to join in. The album strikes the perfect balance between gravity and levity, between deep introspection and knowing when to cast worries aside and get down to celebrating the moment.
The album opener “Wide Awake” gives us a glimpse of the myriad of styles Regen pulls from. Funky, R&B grooves collide with jazz and pop flourishes, and lyrics that never overstate the tune’s status as a love song. And the title track “Higher Ground” sounds like something culled from an earlier time and, perhaps, like John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith” not just a song but a hymn to the heart. “That one is for my son,” Regen remarks. “The lyric, ‘I’m a better man now, ‘cause I stand on higher ground’ is about him showing me what’s really important in this world. The title became a mantra for the entire album, pushing me to elevate my singing, songwriting and piano playing at every turn.”
As good as he is at walking in the alleyways of America’s musical past, Regen moves himself into the contemporary via the socially-conscious “Who Cares If Everybody Else Knows.” “It’s a lyric that all right-minded people can relate to,” Johnson says, “and I feel it’s where I took Jon furthest from his comfort zone musically. The track sounds completely modern and Nick put in some really interesting sounds at the end to finish it off.”
On other tracks, Regen’s piano mastery is firmly on display. “Hole in My Heart” features a dreamy, triple-tracked piano solo that channels the best of early Bowie and later Hornsby. The libidinous, New Orleans-inflected “Every Night” recalls Dr. John at his swampiest. And “East Side Blues” pits Regen’s blues-drenched piano against the street noise of his native New York City, marrying humor with high musical art.
One song, “The Last to Go,” bridges Regen’s recent past with the music of his youth. “Benmont played on that one and recorded the organ at Mitchell Froom’s studio in Los Angeles,” Regen explains. “Mitchell produced my last album, Stop Time, and played the first organ solo I ever heard, on Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over.’ And so the circle completes.”
“The Last to Go” not only summarizes many of the album’s themes, it’s also unquestionably a new high in Regen’s compositional output. “It was the last song I wrote for the album,” he says. “I was up late in New York City one night, thinking about the album and my approaching birthday – of where I have been, and where I still hope to go. I traced my life back through big events, and more personal earthquakes. And of course, with the world we live in now full of disinformation and vitriol, we all look for a guiding light. My wife is that for me.”
“After I wrote that song, I called Benmont to play organ on it. Because nobody can move air on a Hammond like Ben. He also had his daughter on the exact same day I had my son, and I had a feeling he feels about his wife the way I do about mine.”
The balance between light and dark heard on the album is not lost on Regen. “Looking back at the album now, I see it’s full of both optimism and fear,” he says. “Songs like ‘Wide Awake’ and ‘Higher Ground’ speak to the power of love and family and the happiness they bring. But songs like ‘Who Cares If Everybody Else Knows’ and ‘Before’ are darker. They are me grappling with the madness of life as a new parent in 2019 – where no one seems to stand for anything besides greed and power. Those are tough sentiments to reconcile. In the end, I suppose life is about just that – how to explain the unexplainable.”