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Jason Reolon: Raising the Bar

Jason Reolon: Raising the Bar
Seton Hawkins By

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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 Billy Iuso & 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.

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