Pop music is probably the best example of a living embodiment of the expression "what have you done for me lately?" While a hit single may be able to secure you a recording contract, the proviso is that you are going to produce at least one, if not more, money makers for those signing the cheques. That's not only the prevailing business attitude, it also reflects how little weight is given to someone's previous musical experience. In spite of the fact that someone from a classical background will have developed a style and an approach to music that reflects her training, as will a person from a jazz background, nothing is usually done to take advantage of that and the person will be pretty much coerced into playing what's demanded to send a release up the charts.
Which is as good an explanation as you should require to understand why there is usually so much more creativity among independent performers than what you'll find among those assaulting the pop charts. One only needs look at the work performed and written by Jon Regen on his newest release, Let It Go, to see that difference in action. A graduate of the Mason Gross School of Arts at Rutgers University, Regen is one of only 2,000 piano players worldwide to hold the title of Steinway artist granted by the historic piano company in recognition of keyboard virtuosity. Up until 2001 he was touring with bassist Kyle Eastwood, only leaving his band to join up with Jimmy Scott for the next three years.
Even then he was showing promise as a solo performer and band leader as he released his first CD, Jon Regan Trio – Live At The Blue Note in 2000, and followed that up with his 2001 release Tel Aviv. While the first two albums stuck to instrumental jazz his third release, a seven-song EP called Almost Home in 2004, marked his first foray into singing and song writing and Let It Go is his first full length effort. Right from the opening chords rippling from the keys of his piano on the title track, "Let It Go", which opens the disc, you know you're about to experience something quite a bit different from what you'd expect from a piano playing pop singer.
Even without knowing anything about Jon's music, he wrote and asked if I would be willing to review the disc, my expectations were heightened based on the people who have elected to appear as guest performers with him. Andy Summers, of Police fame, and Jimmy Vivano, who plays with Willie Nile among others, are guest guitar players while Martha Wainwright supplies harmonies on the fourth track, "I Come Undone". They join bassist and producer Brad Albetta (Martha's husband/bass player/producer and another Willie Nile player) and drummer Bill Dobrow who form the other two parts of Jon's trio for this recording.
There's a fine line between writing emotionally honest songs dealing with personal issues of love, loss and other introspective ideas and melodramatic self-indulgent naval gazing. Nine times out of ten when you read promotional material praising someone's ability to sing from the heart you end up listening swelling strings, cliched piano trills, and weepy vocals (male or female it doesn't matter) that are long on vibrato but short on substance. Thankfully Jon Regen doesn't seem capable of writing a cliche even if he wanted to.
From his piano playing to his lyrics he charts his own course. Even if some of the songs on the disc aren't to my personal taste, it's obvious that Jon has not once chosen a safe or easy route by opting to fall back on typical pop music patterns. Musically his songs reflect his jazz and composition background in the way he uses subtle shift in rhythms and melody to indicate to change the mood of a song or to emphasize a particular point. There aren't any crashing of bass keys or laborious climbing of scales pointing out moments of emotional tension like neon arrows to insult our intelligence. Instead of telling us how we should feel at any given moment, his music and lyrics tell their story in such a way that we can react as we choose to what we're listening to.
A key element in his music, as is the case for any singer songwriter, is his voice. While he occasionally falls into the trap of equating straining with emotion, overall his voice has an honest roughness to it that makes the stories he's relating all the more credible. For the most part he's willing to simply allow himself to be a conduit for the lyrics without attempting to colour them with affectations. It's almost as if he's been able to distance himself from the knowledge that he wrote the songs, preventing himself from forcing any expectations that he might have as their writer upon the listener.
"I Come Undone" is a great example of this as it deals with his feelings concerning the death of a friend. "I'm not so good at this – It's hit or miss a lot these days" he sings at one point during the song. Anybody who has ever lost somebody close to them can understand exactly what that means within the context of trying to get used to somebody's absence. "Don't you know – It isn't so – That time will heal a broken heart – I tried, they lied, I'm torn apart". Simple words sung without pretence or melodrama with minimal accompaniment so that the voice is what we are most aware of express more about the reality of a situation than any musical thunderstorm or undying protestations of sadness and love could ever hope to convey.
Through out Let It Go Jon Regen shows this same ability over and over again. Special guests like Andy Summers have their work integrated seamlessly so they become part of the whole that Jon is attempting to impart to his audience. This album is an example of what the majority of people miss out on because of the music industry's insistence on sticking to the same formula year in and year out. This is a well crafted and finely executed album of songs blending elements of pop and jazz music. The real pity is that if more people heard music like this they wouldn't settle for what currently rides the top of the charts.