Jason Reolon: Raising the Bar
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.