Pianist/songwriter Jon Regen turns to bright new, pop-infused output

Jon Regen has collaborated with some top rock and pop musicians.
Jon Regen has collaborated with some top rock and pop musicians.

Jazz is a many-splendored proposition.

On the one — er, two — hands, you might have Thelonious Monk going all brainiac with his polymath improvs. On the other, there’s Kenny G and his ilk, inducing head-scratching through their low-cal approach. Plus: Dixieland or post-bop or brass bands or fusion.

And don’t overlook the Cole Porter and Harry Connick, Jr. types, polishing sophisticated and melodic narratives in the fashion that has come to define the standards songbook.

Those latter stylists had a huge impact on modern “rock” writers from Paul McCartney and Randy Newman to Billy Joel and Donald Fagen — and many of those compositional and stylistic elements have coalesced in “Stop Time,” the wonderful new pop album from jazz pianist/songwriter Jon Regen. Working with visionary producer Mitchell Froom (Neil Finn, McCartney) and sidemen from Elvis Costello’s Imposters (bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Pete Thomas), Regen has spun a concise, clever, confessional and hooky set of 10 tunes that represent a bold and rewarding new step.

Interestingly, none of this was a conscious or conceptual decision by Regen. He had written several songs, many of which were the result of a sudden bout of mid-life joy.

“Creativity is funny,” Regen muses by phone from his New York apartment a few weeks back. He’s doing press interviews in support of “Stop Time,” which came out Tuesday and which Regen celebrates with a release party and performance Friday in Old Lyme’s Side Door Jazz Club. “A lot of my earlier albums relied on misery,” he laughs. “Now, I’m much happier. I’d met the woman who became my wife, and I’d had some success with an a new-age album (“Change Your Mind,” a Billboard #1 collaboration with Dr. Mitch Gaynor). So I was in a very different state of mind.”

But while Regen was feeling quite positive, that didn’t necessarily result in a batch of “burst of inspiration” tunes that materialized in a cloud of bliss. In fact, Regen had to work at his craft harder than ever. Maybe, he suggests, happiness even made him a bit complacent. In any event, the advice of two good friends — Semisonic’s Dan Wilson and Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas — jump-started his efforts.

“They both said the same thing,” Regen says. “‘You’ve got to get up and do the work.’ Sometimes you can’t rely on inspiration. It’s not enough to have some inner need to express longing or emotion. So I asked myself, ‘How are you gonna write all these songs?’ Well, I don’t know. I’m just gonna do it. And I did. I made it happen.”

The tunes he started writing indeed had poppier structures, with effortlessly fluid melodies and thoughtful lyrics focused on situations encountered in modern-world, everyday relationships.

Even then, though, Regen was far from finished. He needed to record the album — and to that end he envisioned a New Orleans-sounding record with the town’s signature groove and full arrangements. He thought of John Porter, the British-born New Orleans-based producer who’s worked with dozens of artists including Ryan Adams, Buddy Guy, Los Lonely Boys, Bryan Ferry, and The Alarm. But when those tentative plans fell through, Regen had a completely different idea: what if he could get Mitchell Froom to produce the record?

“I called up Mitchell while I was on my honeymoon,” Regen says. “He told me to send him some tunes. I did and, after we got back and I went on a 30-date tour in Europe, he and I were sending stuff back and forth. He said, ‘Keep sending songs; maybe you’ll beat what you have and maybe you won’t. But it’s good stuff.’ I kept at it and the next thing I knew, I was knocking on Mitchell’s door in L.A., ready to record.”

Froom’s style is very well known and is distinctive and intuitive. He trusts the material and is brilliant at providing little touches that enhance the songs rather than sculpting orchestral confections a la Phil Spector. All of Regen’s early thoughts of lush arrangements went out the window.

“I turned the reins completely over. He IS Mitchell Froom,” Regen laughs. “The guy’s records are a soundtrack to my life: Crowded House and the Indigo Girls and Bonnie Raitt and Suzanne Vega ... And I immediately loved his vision of what the record could be. I didn’t fight him on many things. I thought it was going to have a bigger, more majestic sound but it turned out to be a very different record.”

Part of the working formula was to limit Regen’s musical support to the stripped-down rhythm section of Thomas and Faragher. “Mitchell said, ‘These guys are the best players on the planet, and they’ll care about the material like it was their band.’ He was right. They imbued the music with such spirit and skill. It was overall a totally wonderful experience — and I couldn’t be prouder of the record.”

The reviews have been very positive, too, as when the prestigious JazzTimes wrote, “(‘Stop Time’ is) as potent as anything crafted by Sting.” Heady stuff.

Regen is now primed to take the album on the road with longtime compatriots Richard Hammond (bass) and Abe Fogle (drums). “It’s going to be fun to play this stuff live,” he says. “I learned a lot making ‘Stop Time,’ and maybe the most important thing is that, while that job is done, it’s all part of the process. I’m still trying to write a better song, still trying to dig a little deeper and make better music. It’s a lifelong journey and hopefully people will feel the groove and hear the melodies.”

Jon Regen CD release party, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Side Door Jazz Club, Old Lyme Inn, 85 Lyme St., Old Lyme; $35; (860) 434-0886.



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