The Ropeadope label, which is rather faintly displayed on Jon Regen’s exciting new singer-songwriter recording, Higher Ground, usually suggests progressive, improvisational, and left of center jazz. This is not to say that Regen doesn’t have the requisite jazz piano chops. He certainly does, but this a piano and keyboard-driven singer-songwriter effort, the kind you’d associate with early Bruce Hornsby (one of Regen’s biggest advocates), with echoes of Randy Newman, and morsels of the late Dr. John and John Hiatt. It’s an uplifting album that was globally recorded. Yes, this was done in several studios in several countries with such high profile guests as Andy Summers of The Police, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Chuck Leavell of The Rolling Stones and ABB; and Nick Rhodes of Duran. There are more too, as you’ll see below.
Higher Ground is the follow-up to Regen’s 2015 acclaimed Stop Time. The mixing and engineering for this one must have been challenging given the many submissions from the guesting musicians. Michael Brauer mixed, and Grammy-winner Greg Calbi mastered. The production certainly posed challenges as well with Jamiroquai keyboardist Matt Johnson handling that role. Other notable guest musicians include guitarist George Marinelli (Bonnie Raitt), bassists Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell), \Davey Faragher (Elvis Costello & The Imposters) and Tim Lefebvre (David Bowie, Tedeschi Trucks Band), and drummers Keith Carlock (Steely Dan) and Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel). The credits list 34 contributing musicians in all.
Regen spent most of the 80s in a synth-pop mode before becoming a protégé of jazz pianist Kenny Barron and becoming a solo artist who was hard to categorize. His previous album was one with member of Elvis Costello’s Imposters and was produced by Mitchell Froom. Regen put his recording and touring life on hold when he became a parent and this album, in a way, is almost accidental. Regen just played local shows around NYC and immersed himself in his day job as Editor of Keyboard Magazine. He was playing lots of jazz and honing his piano chops. In September of last year Johnson invited Regen to a Jamiroquai gig, that Regen found moving. The two discussed possibilities at the after-party and although Regen, had some initial reservations, they decided on this project.
They wrote the opening song “Wide Awake” as a test with Regen in New York and Johnson in London. 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.” Regen says, “I wrote the lyrics while my son watched Sesame Street and recorded piano and vocals in my apartment while he napped. Before we knew it, the project was materializing before our eyes.” The fearless Regen then began to recruit the guests.
The bright, optimistic ”Wide Awake” serves as a good introduction to Regen’s genre-defying style as he mixes funk, R&B, jazz and pop in a captivating love song. The title track is a warm ballad to hi son. “Hole in my Heart” features a triple-tracked piano solo that evokes early Bowie and later Hornsby. A clear standout, released as a single like “Wide Awake” is the socially conscious “Who Cares If Everybody Else Knows.” Johnson claims it took Regen out of his comfort zone musically. Regen comments, “This one started as a riff on my Wurlitzer electric piano, as an almost gut reaction to an NPR Tiny Desk Concert I was the late hip hop artist Mac Miller. As the song revealed itself, I realized I was a writing about the truly bizarre world we live in today, where money trumps everything. Then Nick Rhodes added his signature synth magic on top, turning it into the most surprising song on my new album.” Another one on the darker side is “Before.”
The lyrics are a key element of the album as is Regen’s piano work. The NOLA-inflected “Every Night” has echoes of Dr. John and “East Side Blues” has Regen’s piano set against the street noises of NYC. Another clear standout is “Last to Go,” the last song he wrote for the album, a summation of his personal life’s highlights and pitfalls with the guiding light being his wife. Benmont Tench’s organ solo was recorded at Froom’s studio in L.A. and becomes a finishing touch of sorts to the album
This is a well-balanced album musically and lyrically. Overall, the optimism triumphs over a couple of dark songs. This one has it all – solid songs, great playing, some provocative lyrics, and Regen’s eminently listenable vocals too.