The last year has been remarkable for New York City-based musician Jon Regen. In 2019 he released the critically-acclaimed album Higher Ground, which was produced by Jamiroquai's Matt Johnson and featured guest appearances from Andy Summers of The Police, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Chuck Leavell of The Rolling Stones, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, among others.
The record reflected Regen’s wide-ranging talents and abilities, from the pop music that influenced him as a young musician, to the jazz he came to love as his appreciation for music deepened. He appeared in the third season of the The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and somehow found time to host a weekly radio show on JazzRadio Berlin.
Like every musician, he was great impacted by the wave of COVID-19 that hit in Spring 2020, seeing his live performances evaporate and his hometown heavily hit by the virus. Then, as the months went on, as he described in a recent interview with KMUW, inspiration visited him and he quickly wrote and recorded his latest single, “New Prayer,” on which he demonstrates the depths of his musical vocabulary, joining his uncanny pop sensibilities with his love of jazz and a tasteful dash of the avant-garde.
What was the inspiration for this tune?
Like most people on the planet, I spent the last few months in lockdown just trying to process the strange state of the world. I had just started touring my new album Higher Ground when the pandemic shut the music business down. I did a bit of livestreaming during the initial months of the quarantine here in New York, but I really was focused on trying to keep my family safe, so creating new music wasn’t high on my priority list. Then in early June, I decided to update my recording software, and when I started testing the upgrade out, the chords for “New Prayer” just appeared. I wasn’t looking for a song. I guess it came looking for me!
This covers so many of the basses in your music: The love of pop, jazz, etc.
I love all kinds of music. Some people remember me from my work as a “straight-ahead” jazz pianist, and some only know me from my singer/songwriter work. But it’s all part of my musical DNA. I love Bill Evans, but I also really dig Oasis. I studied with jazz great Kenny Barron, but I also love analog synths. I remember as a teenager seeing the late pianist Kenny Kirkland in the Sting movie Bring on the Night saying, “I think if you’re a musician, you should try to play whatever you can play; you should try to cover all the music.” That stuck with me. I also spent 13 years as a writer and editor for Keyboard Magazine, and that exposed me to musical legends and new talent on the rise. So if your ears and heart are open, you never know where music might take you.
Tell me about the cast of players who joined you.
There’s a lot of me on “New Prayer,” from the keyboards and vocals, to the drum programming. There’s also a guest vocal appearance from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose famous inaugural address quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” really resonated with me during these trying times. I mean, yes, there’s a lot to fear out there, but there’s also a lot to embrace and be grateful for. That line helped me remember that myself.
Then I asked the British singer and instrumentalist Alice Offley to guest with me. I first heard her sing and play bass with Tom Bailey from the Thompson Twins back in 2019 in New York City, and we became fast friends. She actually lent her voice to my song “East Side Blues” from my current album Higher Ground. I just had a feeling our voices would blend well together, and they did. Next, my longtime British bass player PJ Phillips joined in, because he always seems to find a perfect part for whatever song he’s playing. The same goes for guitarist Matt Beck, who has played on a few of my albums and is known for his work with Rob Thomas among others. Then I had the idea to get saxophonist Jeff Coffin from the Dave Matthews Band on the song. We met a few years ago but had never worked together. I just had the sense that he would respond to the intention of the track. He got it immediately, and really took the song to another place. Finally, I’ve always loved Greg Wells’ production, songwriting and instrumental work. I sent him the song with the hopes that he would understand the kind of energy I was hoping to spread with it. He loved it, mixed it, and sent it back to me the same day!
The lyrics are a perfect example of less being more. Did that fall in line pretty quickly?
Once the song showed-up, I just started chasing it. The phrase “Everything’s gonna be alright” just came-out of me, almost like a mantra or a prayer. Maybe it was me reassuring myself that the seemingly insurmountable amount of chaos in the world today – from Coronavirus to the state of race relations here in the US, can all be solved if we come together as one. I know from where I sit, I see more and more people listening to each other and trying to make a change. So that gives me hope. And I guess that all came out in the song.
You released Higher Ground in 2019. Are there lyrics or songs on there that have come to take on new meaning since the record came out and we’ve entered the strange reality of 2020?
There are a few songs that resonate even more these days. The title track with its phrase, “I was king for a day, then it all went away, but you showed me sometimes lost is really found.” Spending three months in lockdown watching your kid grow-up is a journey unto itself. And then there’s the song “Who Cares If Everybody Else Knows,” that Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran guested on. Those lyrics are even more relevant now. “So strike a pose, with the emperor’s clothes, and leave these questions for another day.” I think that one speaks for itself.
I’ve talked to a number of musicians who have been writing at a faster pace in the wake of the lock down and other events. Do you feel like your creativity has accelerated?
I feel like it’s taken me a while to get back into that zone. I was actually on the way back from a tour of Europe when the pandemic was looming, and at the time few of us really understood that it was actually headed our way. The shock of watching daily life around the globe grind to a halt really took me aback. And then we had the racial reckoning in the US that made many of us pause to just listen and learn. My hope with “New Prayer” is that it spreads some light around. There’s been a lot to be dark about for sure, but there’s still much to celebrate.
What do you miss most about live performance right now?
Everything. I’ve been a gigging musician since I was a teenager. The music, the interaction, the adventure; it keeps you young and it keeps you inspired. I can’t wait for it all to return.
What’s one song that continues to astound you, years after you first heard it? Why?
I’ve been going through a Beatles phase lately, so I’m going to go with “Golden Slumbers” from Abbey Road. I saw Paul McCartney a few years back when I interviewed his longtime keyboardist Wix Wickens, and I was just knocked sideways by this music that has surrounded me my entire life. Every time I hear that song I’m deeply moved by it.