Musical explorer: Jon Regen has traveled from jazz to pop and beyond
If you'd seen the pianist Jon Regen when he was globally touring in Jimmy Scott and Kyle Eastwood's excellent post-bop bands, you'd have easily believed he grew up in a household where Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk and Willie "The Lion" Smith were omnipresent on the family stereo.
As it is, the music of Regen's childhood was much more centered on artists such as Elton John, Billy Joel and the Police - and, ultimately, that helps explain why Regen's career arc has twirled in a decided pop songwriter direction.
In that spirit, Regen performs Friday in the Garde Arts Center's Oasis Room, touring behind his latest album, a shimmering effort called "Revolution."
"Pop is definitely the music I grew up, and I've always been a tremendous fan of pop," Regen says by phone from his New York home base. "At 17, though, as I was getting pretty good on piano, I got bitten by the jazz bug. I wanted to explore improv and instrumental interaction within a band."
After being named runner-up in the 1996 Great American Jazz Piano Competition, Regen went solo and hit with three critically popular jazz albums: "From Left to Right," "Live at the Blue Note," and "Tel Aviv."
Gradually, though, the long-frozen affection for pop began to thaw, and he discovered more and more that the material he was writing was evolving.
"Part of it is that I've never been a big fan of making the same record over and over," Regen says. "Even when I was writing jazz, the songs were concise, and I was reminded of an acute awareness of the possibilities that lay in the economy of pop. So I spun 180 degrees back and went on a quest to simply write and musically tell the stories in my head."
On the albums "Almost Home" (2004) and "Let It Go" (2008), Regen explored his new stylistic territory. The songs eased from bright, smart uptempo pieces to magnificent balladry, and the influences of folks like Joel, John and Randy Newman surfaced. Having made dozens of musical pals over the years, guest artists included Andy Summers, Jonathan Sanborn, and Martha Wainwright.
With "Revolution," Regen has shifted into a magnificent new gear that fuses the earlier components with the sort of material you'd expect of Harry Connick, Jr., and Donald Fagen. There's a wit and assurance on tunes like the title cut and "She's Not You (But Tonight She'll Have to Do)," and a gorgeous sense of melody on "Spirits of the Soul" and "One Part Broken, Two Parts Blue."
Also, Regen is clearly having a blast reaching out and exploring textures with an increasing array of musicians. Summers guests again on the record, and Tom Petty mainstay Benmont Tench, ex-Beach Boy Ricky Fataar and Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas all contributed.
"These are all tremendous people and musicians, and they all love the opportunity to play with new ideas," Regen says. "These are guys who really work at their craft. They get up every day and make music and they have a terrific work ethic. Collaborating with them took me and the album places I'd have never otherwise gone."
with Matt Beck, 8 p.m. Friday, chat and dine with Regen at 7 p.m., Oasis Room, Garde Arts Center, 325 Bank St., New London; $40 includes chat and dine; (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org.
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