Mixing Keyboard Riffs and Famous Friends
Jon Regen's Higher Ground bridges the digital gig economy with a little help from fellow musicians.
The Songwriter and pianist Jon Regen's life changed after the birth of his son in 2017. Fatherhood at age 48 jolted him into believing his career might be on hold indefinitely. After choosing to stay at home with their child while his wife continued her career as a swimwear designer, Regen decided to work around his son’s sleep schedule and make an album (a follow-up to 2015's Mitchell Froom-produced Stop Time) in his living room. Then he asked members of the Heartbreakers, the Rolling Stones, the Police, Duran Duran, and other notable session players to contribute to it. They said yes, but why?
For years, Regen pieced together piano performance gigs and writing and editing jobs in his quest to "make it" in music. A Gen-Xer caught between the music industry implosion of the 1990s and the anonymity of 21st-century streaming, his name recognition was outside the mainstream and his victories hard-won: he was a finalist in the Great American Jazz Piano competition in 1996 and was signed to Steinway's Artist roster; his solo albums were critically-acclaimed and packed with musical luminaries, and he scored a Billboard #1 spot with a new age instrumental album in 2013. Regen was named Editor of Keyboard magazine after years as a contributing writer, and he nabbed gigs at prominent jazz clubs and festivals around the world, becoming a sort of poster boy for networking backstage at shows and in airports. He snapped selfies for social media with artists like Rob Thomas, Charlie Watts and Lyle Lovett, while also arranging side gigs with some of their touring musicians. Regen knew his career—and considerable songwriting and performing talent—deserved attention.
In 2018, when he started to write songs about his hopes for his son and his worries about the future of America, he didn't want to do the project alone. Regen reached out to his personal network for advice and support, and the songs he'd written for Higher Ground resonated with many players on his wish list, including Chuck Leavell, Nick Rhodes, Matt Johnson, Andy Summers, and Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), whose baby daughter was born on the same day as Regen's son. In short, these bold names said yes to recording for Higher Ground because of their loyalty to the "brotherhood/sisterhood" of musicians who support each other behind the scenes.
Regen's album is an example of the new ways seasoned session players are collaborating. Today's music production often relies upon machinated sounds, crowdsourced songwriting, remote recording, and highly-choreographed live performances that tuck side players under the stage and out of sight of the lead singer. In the age of solo superstars, there are lucrative gigs to be filled by support musicians (and sometimes even key band members) while on tour, yet the rest of the year is spent patching together recording and concert opportunities in a highly competitive grab for slivers of an ever-shrinking pie.
Regen made the album mostly in his living room, produced by Johnson (of Jamiroquai), with a more than a dozen "who's who" of players and vocalists (including the fabulous Julie Kent on cello), many of whom recorded their parts and sent them in for mixing from 18 different studios. It could have been a nightmare patchwork, but it’s just the opposite: songs such as "Wide Awake" and "Who Cares if Everybody Else Knows" (featuring a classic bit by Rhodes) work because they're not trying to Top-40 hits; they’re just really good. Regen wrote all of the lyrics and most of the music, except for a few tracks co-credited to Johnson (whose soulful touch on the keys is also prevalent), and the gamut of styles represented (from late-night piano bar heartache to funk-jazz and singer-songwriter balladry) are congruent with Regen's diverse keyboard skills. “Hole in My Heart” combines legit jazz piano solos into a pop framework; “Jupiter Calling” is a spacey synth interlude; the title cut glides through lap steel and organ and a chorus Randy Newman would die for; “East Side Blues” jams like the lost theme song to a 1970s cop drama; "Every Night“ features Leavell on Hammond B3; "Before” showcases Summers on guitar in a thrumming contemplation on the chaos of the present; “The Last to Go” is a musical love letter to his wife accompanied by Tench's signature playing; and “Goodnight, New York” is a perfect, 98-second rumination on a city continually being reborn.
Gary Graff at Billboard took notice of the album’s singular appeal, and singer and pianist Jamie Cullum featured Regen on The Jazz Show on BBC2 Radio in Britain. (Bruce Hornsby loves it, too.) Regen debuted the album’s material at New York’s Blue Note club in September and will embark on a world tour later this month. At a time when the word “musician” is not often uttered in the same sentence as “chart-topper,” “performer” or “hitmaker,” Higher Ground is a compelling reason to believe that music is alive and well in each of us. Listen.
Photos by Anna Webber.