Jason Reolon: Raising the Bar
“ The tunes don't lend themselves to burning, as this album is more of an emotional reminiscence for me. I'm putting a lot to bed from my life with this album. ”
South Africa may well be in the midst of its third jazz renaissance. While the late 1950s saw the rise of legendary artists such as Kippie Moeketsi, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Philip Tabane, the early 1990s marked the emergence of trailblazers Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and Zim Ngqawana. The past five years have born witness to a surge of local jazz talent, as charismatic young musicians draw upon a wide range of inspirations and set a new precedent for instrumental prowess and melodic insight.
It is within this cast of artists that the Cape Town-based pianist and composer Jason Reolon has emerged as a leading exponent of the new music. Debuting on the scene in 1999 with the popular jazz ensemble Breakfast Included, Reolon has gone on to perform in vital Cape Town bands including Restless Natives, Search Party, and the Iridium Project, in addition to fronting his own ensemble. With Outline (Self Produced, 2011), Reolon has cemented his reputation as a remarkable pianist and improviser, and one of the most gifted composers in South Africa today.
All About Jazz: What are your earliest memories in music?
Jason Reolon:I was born into a family of jazz musicians. Both of my parents passed away when I was quite young, but my dad, Bobby Gien, was quite a drummer. In fact, in the 1970s he played with Ronnie Scott for five years at Scott's club [in London, England] as part of his resident trio with organ player Mike Carr. So he was quite a big deal back here in South Africa as well as in England. As a kid I remember him traveling a lot. In fact, he played at Carnegie Hall.
My mother, Josie Gien, was a jazz vocalist, and so I was brought up with jazz musicians in my house a lot. Quite big names, too, because they'd come to South Africa to visit and perform.
Interestingly, as much as I was exposed to the music all day long and loved it, in those days as a child, I guess I never really had a lot of faith in the lifestyle of being a jazz musician, given the struggle that many go through to earn a living. As much as I loved the music and had it in my ears, I didn't really see myself going into it as a career.
I started studying classical piano and took it very seriously until I finished school. At that time, though, my mom got sick from cancer, and sadly passed away. During that period, I didn't do any music in the slightest. I went to Europe and hung around there for two years, working and saving money to come back to Cape Town to study classical music. But honestly, I came to Cape Town because of the jazz scene and the fact that the university offered such a renowned jazz course as well.
In the back of my head I always loved jazz. I have always been able to scat and express myself vocally in the genre, having listened to my mother transcribe Ella [Fitzgerald]'s scat solos. In my second year of my classical piano degree at the University of Cape Town, I met Jack von Poll, a great Belgian-Dutch pianist. I don't know how long he had been living here at that point, but he had a beautiful house in Hout Bay and he started integrating himself into the music college and performing with the students.
The first time I saw him play I thought, "This is my guy." He had this Oscar Peterson-style going, and I resonated with it. I also had a weird connection with him, even before meeting him. I walked by a practice room one day, and he was rehearsing with a vocal group. So I knocked on the door and said, "Do you mind if I sit in and listen for a bit?" And he said, "Yeah, of course! Sit down!" And I sat there, completely blown away by what he was doing. He looked at me and said, "Who are you man?" And I said, "My name is Jason, maybe you'd have heard of my father, Bobby Gien?" And he said "Bobby Gien? Oh, I recorded with that cat! Are you his son?" He gave me an LP that he recorded with my dad back in the day, and he asked me, "How are you doing here, man? How's the jazz course going?" I said that I wasn't studying jazz, and he said, "What are you talking about?" He was an inspiration to me, because he led an incredible life. I went to his house and realized that he was a jazz muso who was travelling the world and loving what he was doing. It completely turned my whole impression upside down, and after that I started the jazz course.
AAJ: Do you remember which musicians were visiting your house as you were growing up?
JR: I would have to investigate that, because I can't remember. I do remember a lot of American accents as a kid. There were also a lot of British guys, but my dad passed away when I was seven, so my recollection is just images. I do have LPs of my dad recording with some serious dudes, and I've got newspaper clippings of the Ronnie Scott trio.
I really wish he was still alive so I could pick his brain. But the older generation in this country, when they find out he was my dad, certainly look at me and go, "Oh, wow! Really?" They tell me their stories of my dad.
AAJ: Your current album, Outline, has flavorings of Abdullah and Brad Mehldau. When did you come across your influences, and how did you forge your own sound?
JR: I definitely started out in the Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander, and Benny Green strain, the blues mixed with bebop. For me, Oscar Peterson was the master of taking bebop with blues and making it entertaining. I can't remember when I first heard Brad Mehldau. I think it was my first lesson with Jack, and we listened to a Mehldau album. I remember thinking that it was a wine that I shouldn't taste until five years from now. It was something I knew I'd get into, but the moment was too soon.
I got into Joshua Redman before I got into Mehldau, and Redman's music segued me into Brad's playing. I started a band called Breakfast Included in 1999...
AAJ: There was an article from about eight years ago that highlighted your work in Breakfast Included and named you as one of the up and coming talents of South Africa...
JR: Yeah, we were kind of like a mini-Beatles for jazz. People would see four blonde white guys playing jazz, and they couldn't figure it out.
Quite honestly, when we started Breakfast Included we were just starting out in jazz, all first year studentswe could perform well, but I'd say that as jazz artists we still had a long way to go. It was more of a sensation band at first, and we had to pay our dues.
AAJ: What would be "paying your dues" in the Cape Town scene?
JR: I think today is different from back then. We started playing at the small clubs for next to nothing, and very quickly we became quite popular and playing most nights of the week. Especially among the younger generation of fansthey'd never really seen anything like that.
Our strength was that we took jazz standards, arranged them well, and we were tight. That's why I liken us to The Beatles, in that we did our thing well.
But we had a long way to go, and we never pretended otherwise. I think paying your dues in Cape Town is pretty much the same as anywhere else. We've got great talent here and we've got guys who practice hard. Just like in New York, you can't fool anyone here in the jazz scene. I don't know if that would surprise anyone who is not from here. I meet a lot of overseas people who are taken aback when I say there's a heavy scene over here.
Back to the influences, it was in Breakfast Included that was started listening to Joshua Redman, and he was a huge influence and inspiration to arrange our own stuff. We also played one or two of his tunes, and it was a great way forward.
I don't generally idolize people or fall over when a famous person walks by, but one person I really do admire is Redman. If you look at all his albums, he's like Sting for meeach one is so unique. Each album is clearly him, but so unique when compared to the album before it and yet connected by a natural progressive thread. I feel he is one of the jazz icons of our era.
When we recorded our second album as Breakfast Included, we listened to Redman's album Timeless Tales (WEA, 1998), and Brad Mehldau was on that. And I heard that and thought "This reminds me of something." The album took me back to the first time I heard Mehldau, and I realized that I was about ready for this guy.
I suppose what also resonated with me in Mehldau's playing was his classicism. His left hand is very active, and it's a very melodic, interactive left hand, which is something I like to do.
AAJ: There's a disciplined approach to improvising in your playing that resonates with Mehldau's.
JR: That was kind of the approach I was going for. Living in New York for four monthsI went there to absorb the musicthe one thing I got from it is that everyone's really good and unafraid to show it.
I remember that I went to a jam session at Smoke Jazz Club at about 11 o'clock at night. I got called up at about 3 am, and everyone was just blowing up a storm. As amazing as it was, I realized that this wasn't what I was abouthow many notes I could fit into one bar. I wanted to do more with less, and I think that's a trend that's happening in jazz.
With my album, I didn't sit there and think "How am I going to make this simple?" Instead, I think it evolved out of the music naturally. The tunes don't lend themselves to burning, as this album is more of an emotional reminiscence for me. I'm putting a lot to bed from my life with this album.
AAJ: Your album is entirely original compositions. Can you talk a bit about them?
The first two tracks, "Outline" and "Mirror Mirror," were first recorded with a band I played in called Restless Natives. Bassist Avishai Cohen visited Cape Town and gave a workshop while I was at UCT. It was incredible, and afterwards I went straight to my room and wrote "Outline." It definitely has an African undertone to it.
"Mirror Mirror" came quite quickly after that and both tunes were made popular at the nightclub Asoka, where Restless Natives have been playing for nearly five years now.
The rest of the tunes I wrote over time. "Mother City Blues" is named for Cape Town, and is a home-based tune, recalling my experience of the city. "Heinsight" is a Latin number written with drummer Heinrich Goosen in mind. I've always loved Latin music, especially Cuban music, and the piece is a tribute to that. The rhythm kills me I think some part of me was born there.
"Picture Perfect" is more of a ballad approach, and "Remember a Time" reflects My Jewish upbringing, which is interesting as I'm not Jewish anymore. I remember when I was 12, my mom picked me up from Hebrew school and said, "We need to start thinking about your Bar Mitzvah." We had previously been to some of my friends' Bar Mitzvahs, which were expensive, and we didn't have much money. I remember saying to my mother, "We don't need to do this." She had converted to Judaism to marry my dad, and in that moment, I ceased to be Jewish. The piece is a tribute to that, and has an element of sadness to it.
"Glass Roots" hints at my frustration with South African politics. We have an incredible country, but it's riddled with heavy crime. Living with that every day, we begin to become immune to it, and I hate that fact that one lives every day kinda waiting for something bad to happen. I don't know if it's getting better or worse, but it's there. You just numb yourself to this fact, and it's a bittersweet existence.
"Nieu Moon" is spelled as such, because there's a town called Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo. After my father died, my mom remarried a Swiss guy, which is why my last name is Reolon and not Gien. They moved to this beautiful place. It's an incredible oasis, Nieu Bethesda, and it's where my mom passed away.
AAJ: What also pops out on this album is the sound quality. I see it was mixed and mastered in New Yorkhow did that come about?
JR: The album was recorded at the SAE Institute, one of Cape town's major sound engineering schools. It is headed up by Dave Maclean. Just over the road is this beautiful underground studio, now owned by SAE, and we recorded an album there with Restless Natives. In fact, we recorded a triple album that we're preparing for release now. It's been a three-year project.
The way the recording sessions worked for my group was that bands were been given one hour to perform for a live audience comprising mostly students from the school, and the band gets to keep the recording.
I was offered a slot, and I said, "Let's do it." I feel the recording worked because we performed to a live audience. Roger, our recording engineer, would have preferred not to do so, given it was a small space to start with which made his job more challenging, but for me, I perform for people. Working alone in the studio is a dynamic I'm not 100% comfortable with, and having listeners there to bounce the music off was more natural for me. And having only one hour was good as it put the pressure on without the comfort blanket of second and third takes.
AAJ: All first takes, then?
There was one track we decided to rerecord, but that was just because the band didn't come in quite right, and the redone version was a more beautiful take. But otherwise it was first takes. I don't know if I'd do it that way again, but it certainly worked.
Suddenly, I had this recording. I thought to myself, "I can get this mixed and mastered here, or I can try something else." So I went to my CD collection and thought about my favorite jazz albums. It was about four or five that I pulled out, and on them the mixing and mastering was done by the same two guys. What are the chances?
James Farber was the recording and mixing engineer on most of these albums. I reached out to him, and he responded to me! I got an email and thought, "Oh my god, this guy deals with major artists, and here I am!" From the beginning to end, I felt like I had made a friend. Working with James was the most refreshing experience ever.
Because I wouldn't be there for the mixing, I had to pre-edit the album. We decided that James would do it in one 12-hour day, because I couldn't afford for more, given South African rands to American dollars. So I did the pre-editing here, and it worked amazingly. James got a hold of Greg Calbi to do the mastering, and it was sent to Sterling Sound for final mastering.
When the album came back to me, I thought, "That's the real deal!" I started playing it for fellow musicians here, and they were mostly blown away. Because our sound here doesn't usually get captured and engineered properly as jazz recording artists, that's the impression you get of yourself as a musician. If you're playing, you hear the sound, but when you hear a recording, and that sound doesn't translate well, your impression of yourself goes down a notch.
I think this recording has awakened musicians here to what's possible.
AAJ: This is a huge financial outlay. What are your plans moving forward with this album?
JR: I've been meaning to make an album like this, because I recognize the value of having an album of original music. I see myself as a musician living in South Africa, being fed music from the world, but playing it on a South African platform.
I'd like this to translate and equate to playing festivals overseas. And I don't mind how slowly that might happen. But I'd like that to be the eventual outcome. We've got a great scene here and I love Cape Town, but every year I feel like I hit a ceiling and I know there's more to do.
I'm not looking for fame or glory, but I'd like to take the trio, get out of here and play my music, and come back in between.
So on the first of June, we did an album launch, and I went all-out with an incredible venue and had it filmed. To my trio I added Buddy Wells on saxophone, Tony Paco on percussion, and my wife, Ariella Caira, on cello, which took the material to another level. And we added visuals projected onto the stage, created by my designer, Marcii Goose, which brought another dimension to experiencing the music. Having that filmed was my next step, and my idea is to start networking abroad and getting the project out there. That's the ideahopefully the music will do the rest.
Jason Reolon Trio, Outline (Self Produced, 2011)
Jason Reolon Trio, Off the Record (Self Produced, 2007)
Breakfast Included, Night Work Ahead (Self Produced, 2004)
All Photos Courtesy of Jason Reolon