Jon Regen acknowledges that Higher Ground — whose "Who Cares If Everybody Else Knows" is premiering exclusively below — "was an album I wasn't expecting to make."
It's the New York composer and keyboardist's first release in four years, an interim he took, purposefully, to raise his now 20-month-old son — and that he planned to be even longer. "My wife has a regular job" as a bikini designer, Regen says, "so I felt like, 'Well, I'm gonna table this for awhile,' and I was OK with it." Then he went to check out a Jamiroquai concert in Queens and met up with the group's Matt Johnson, who Regen, also editor of Keyboard magazine, had interviewed before. The two wound up subsequently writing a song together, and that put Regen on the path to Higher Ground.
"Matt's incredibly bold and adept at working any which way he can come up with," Regen says. "After we wrote a song together, he thought we could actually make album with me in New York and him in London and nobody ever playing together. And we did it. It was great happenstance the way it came together."
Higher Ground, due out Oct. 4, covers a great deal of ground on it 11 tracks, including nods to Regen's hero Bruce Hornsby, to Steely Dan and to his taste for synthy new wave. Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes, in fact, plays on the airy, contemporary R&B-flavored "Who Cares If Everybody Else Knows" along with bassist Davey Faragher from Elvis Costello's Imposters.
"That song in many ways is a little bit of an outlier on the record," says Regen who was inspired by an immersion into Mac Miller's music after the rapper died last year. “I had heard of him but didn't know his music. I stumbled upon this NPR Tiny Desk Concert of him playing things and I was just knocked out at the band, at his delivery, the jazz and hip-hop and spoken word. I didn't set out to emulate that; It was just a new flavor that had come into my mind. I sent it to Matt and said, 'I don't know what you'll make of this. It's totally left field' but he loved it, and he blew it up into a full production.
"That's really how this (album) worked. Having this great collaborator gave me the freedom to be honest in my songwriting this time out. I wasn't editing myself. I could really write from the heart and turn it over to someone else."
Having Rhodes, who Regen had also interviewed before, on the track was something of a pipe dream. "You can't be a keyboard player coming up in the '80s and not be influenced by Nick Rhodes," Regen says. "I got to know him a little bit as a journalist so I sent him (the track) and he wrote me back and said, 'I think I can find something to play on this' and he did and it really knocked me out."
The album also features contributions by Police guitarist Andy Summers, Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Chuck Leavell (Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers Band, Sea Level). "When your heroes come out to play music with you, that's a tremendously humbling experience," Regen notes. "I dreamt big on this project, and I think the intent of the music and the stories I was telling endeared people to join in. It's a gift beyond words."
Higher Ground, of course, puts Regen back in the music game, and he's working out how he'll balance that with his continuing parental duties. He'll preview the album on Sept. 16 at the Blue Note in New York City and will be touring Europe during November and again in the spring. "As a primary parent, I don't think I'm going to be on the road for months at a time like I did in my twenties, but there's definitely gonna be shows," says Regen, who has a regular gig playing jazz at New York's Roxy Hotel and also filmed a scene, as a pianist in a club, for the upcoming third season of Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. "Making the record was a very big undertaking — even doing it remotely like we did. Playing live is still a first love for me and something I'll never give up, so I'm looking forward to playing these songs for people."