The release of Jason Rebello's first LP shows him to be more than the tasteful performer the jazz circuit already recognises. Simon Trask talks to one of Britain's leading jazz keyboardsmen.
Young British jazz pianist Jason Rebello has made a name for himself as a performer over the past two or three years; now his debut album shows him to be a talented composer as well.
SO OFTEN A BYWORD FOR THE TRIUMPH of virtuosity over musicality, of cleverness over substance, fusion music has become the stick with which musicians who can't play keyboards as well as Chick Corea, or bass as well as John Pattituci, can beat their more technically accomplished musical brethren.
A Clearer View, the aptly-named debut album front young British jazz pianist Jason Rebello, suggests a more intelligent direction for fusion music. Listening to the album you're aware that the musicians - Rebello on keyboards, David O'Higgins on saxes, Julian Crampton and Lawrence Cottle on basses, Jeremy Stacey on drums and Karl Van Den Bocsh on percussion - are very capable players, but ultimately it's the quality of the music rather than the dexterity of the musicians which holds your attention and brings you back for more. The ten tracks on the album are first and foremost compositions, not vehicles for the musicians to show how well they can play. Rebello is the fertile and intelligent musical mind behind all the tracks, composing music which combines the classical composers' sense of structural balance and motivic detail with the jazz musicians' flair for improvisation and spontaneity in a way which avoids sounding contrived or stilted. With the emphasis on ensemble playing, solos are tightly reined, more an extension of the ensemble than individual self-indulgence. As a composer Rebello orchestrates many shades of mood, from the effervescent to the reflective, and different musical feels, from tight, measured funk to fluid jazz, in a natural way which suggests he has not only absorbed a healthy variety of musical influences but managed to find common ground for them in his own mind. It's possible to see the likes of Weather Report, Lyle Mays, Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett as musical references, but at the same time there's clearly an individual musical mind at work.
Rebello is very aware of the trap which many American fusion musicians have fallen into: "There's this kind of formula in America where everybody's churning out superclean, perfect fusion albums, and they've lost the feel, the music lacks wildness and soul. I didn't want my album to sound like that. In fact, it's not that polished in some ways. There's some things on it that would never have got onto albums by Dave Weckl, Mike Stern or Chick Corea, but at the same time it can be the unexpected things which help to make the music. I don't think it's particularly important for music to be flashy. It's the substance that's important. Like a good pop record, it's good because they've gone for a simple idea but it's a strong idea, something that's economic in terms of that's all there needs to be. Prince's 'Sign 'O' The Times' is a good example. Music doesn't have to be complicated to be good. There again, if it's complicated and it has substance then that's fine."
Only 21 years old - though on the evidence of his boyish good looks you'd say he was more like 17 - Rebello has already worked with the likes of Courtney Pine, Tommy Smith, Steve Williamson and Cleveland Watkiss, playing on Smith's second album Peeping Tom and Cleveland Watkiss' debut Green Chimneys.
In 1988 he was voted most promising newcomer of the year by the readers of Wire magazine, polling four times as many votes as his nearest rival; he has also won the Pat Smythe jazz award. Not bad for someone who was first turned onto jazz in 1984 after seeing Herbie Hancock and the Rockit band perform in London. Fascinated by Hancock's playing, Rebello began investigating the keyboard player's recorded history, taking in the Headhunters' jazz-funk, Miles Davis' jazz-rock and the pre-electric Miles group with Hancock and Wayne Shorter, which he regards as the classic jazz group. In turn he discovered the music of such jazz pianists as Wynton Kelly and Erroll Garner and the broader vista of jazz.
By this time Rebello was already a skilled player, having taken up classical piano at the age of nine. He learnt to play jazz by listening to records, transcribing the music and analysing what made it tick.
"I don't think there's really any other way you can learn", he says. "Doing it that way gives you the best training: ear training, timing, feel, memory... If you do it for long enough, your ear gets to the stage where you can hear anything you want to. Forget all the books and all that rubbish, just learn by listening to the music."
But what was it that attracted Rebello to jazz?
"It's the only living improvised music", he replies. "At one time the classical pianists were composers and improvisers too, but that seemed to die after Liszt. It was jazz that took over as the improvised music, and it's that improvisational aspect which attracted me to it. Maybe if I hadn't become a jazz musician I'd have been a composer, I don't know. I've always wanted to know why things work in music."
As well as Herbie Hancock, Rebello lists Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, George Duke, Lyle Mays and Nat Adderley Jnr (Luther Vandross' keyboard player) as his inspirations when it comes to synth playing. For acoustic piano he singles out Keith Jarrett, Hancock, Corea, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Kelly and Erroll Garner. When I observe that Jarrett and Corea have both recorded classical music as well as jazz, Rebello replies "That's because they're not jazz pianists, they're true musicians. Obviously they're going to be into things that are good. That's what I'd like to be as a musician."
Rebello himself is equally at home playing jazz-funk or straight-ahead jazz, and it's the way in which he utilises both styles in the compositions on A Clearer View which give the music its identity.
"The whole thing about music is that style isn't really that important, and if the whole basis of your music is a particular style then in time it's going to sound dated and irrelevant. CPE Bach's music was all style and it does nothing for me, whereas JS Bach's music has so much substance to it that the style isn't that important. It's like some of Herbie's records, he uses bits from the style of the era, like disco, but it doesn't disturb me because there's something relevant there that you can get out of it today. What's important is having something worthwhile to say."
Anyone who can mention JS Bach and Herbie Hancock in the same breath must have a broadminded outlook on music. But then while Rebello was playing in jazz clubs by night, he was taking a three-year graduate diploma course in classical music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London by day, studying and analysing the music of the classical composers. It was this background which led him to adopt a more traditional compositional approach to A Clearer View. All the parts are scored out for the musicians, the music is more carefully structured than the traditional jazz format, and classical composition techniques like motivic development are employed.
"Hopefully it doesn't sound contrived", Rebello comments. "Theory should be a tool, it should be a means to an end, not an end in itself. The point isn't to be clever in using certain musical techniques but to make the music feel right instinctively. I do tend to rely on my instinct about things, and if something doesn't feel right to me then I won't use it. It's almost like you find the thing in you that you think other people have as well. If you rely on intellect, the chances are other people don't have the same intellect towards music that you do, so they're not going to relate to it."
A CLEARER VIEW WAS RECORDED AND mixed at London's Wessex Sound Studios, during June this year, with another of Rebello's musical heroes, Wayne Shorter, at the production helm. Why Shorter?
"It was his writing that made me think there's so much more that can be done with jazz and fusion", Rebello explains. "He seems to have started venturing out into that area, so I thought 'who else could I want to do it?'. I like people who go against the grain of what almost everyone else thinks, and he's one of those people. I find that fascinating, to meet someone who you talk to and you think 'how on earth is your mind working?'."
So how did Shorter approach his role as producer?
"He didn't take over", Rebello replies, "which is good because I'd written the music out in a quite detailed way, so there wasn't much room in terms of the playing and the production. But he'd come up with ideas and suggestions, and some of them, when I hear the result, I think 'Brilliant, that's made the tune for me, more than the stuff I'd written on it'. It'd be exactly what I wanted. And sometimes, he'd say 'I hear this sound'. Just things I wouldn't have thought of."
"We can't really relate to computers like we can to other people - there again, mixing real players with computers is interesting."
The virtues of experience. Talking of experience, what does Rebello feel he's learnt from recording the album?
"I've learnt what's possible in a studio, and about compromising between having a live sound and an album sound", he says. "I wanted to do the whole album live, but now I realise that, being realistic, it's quite a tall order. I think it's the time as well, realising that you're working with human beings not with computers and allowing for that more. If I did it again I'd have breaks in between mixing, things like that - the human side."
The human side of music-making is something that Rebello places great importance on, not least because he feels there's not nearly enough of it in today's technology-obsessed music. However, he's no latter-day Luddite advocating a wholesale return to "real" instruments, more a cautioning voice against letting technology do all the talking.
"I don't want to sound snobbish about it", he says, "because I respect anyone who works honestly at what they're doing and puts in an effort - it doesn't matter what style it is, they're entitled to be called musicians. But not someone who comes up with a simple bassline and gets someone else to program it on a computer. There's a limit where I have to be honest and say something's a pile of rubbish. And I see people who have the cheek to call themselves musicians. What do you class someone who can press a button? I try to keep up with what's going on, but I just can't listen to some of these dance tracks because they're so banal. I'm not saying that in a snobby muso way, there's just nothing to them.
"People should use equipment to further something in their minds, not rely on it for their ideas. I think what happens is that people are thrown into a studio and given loads of money, and then they get excited because suddenly they've got a drum machine that sounds like a record they've heard and they think 'Yeah, I really like this'. But that's it - they don't go any further because they don't see the possibilities. There's no effort, no perseverance in thinking it through rather than having an equipment orgasm, and so with a lot of records today you're listening to the equipment. It isn't being used as a means to an end, it's an end in itself. But what's the point in dancing to a microchip?
"It seems to me that the whole mood of music is going back to the human touch, like there's a lot more real drums coming back on records. For me, the more human feel there is, the more it does for me. And I genuinely believe that as far as music goes - people are happier hearing something human, whether or not they believe it themselves. The more contact people have with other people the better, it gives them more of a sense of belonging, and it's the same with music. People want to hear weird personalities and interesting people. To me that's the whole beauty of music, when what some one has to say is so completely different from what some-one else has to say. We're human beings, and we're eccentric and unexpected, that's the way we are. We're not computers and we can't really relate to computers like we can to other people. There again, mixing real players with computers is interesting; for me, that's what really makes the computer valid."
Rebello's own equipment setup consists of a Roland D50, Korg M1 and SG1D electronic piano, Alesis MIDIverb and an Atari 1040ST running C-Lab's Notator software. He sees Notator as a writing tool rather than a compositional necessity - "Composers have been writing orchestral pieces in their heads for centuries, they didn't need computers. It's more what you can hear in your head that's important." In his case it allowed him to compose all the music for the album, print out the parts for the musicians, and let them hear the music so they could get an idea of how he wanted it to sound.
"Rather than me saying 'do what you like'", he explains, "I wanted them to realise what I was after and then do their own thing based on that realisation. For instance, when the drummer played he was influenced by a lot of the things that I'd programmed using the M1 drum sounds. He did a lot of his own stuff, but also he kept the vibe of the programmed parts. It wasn't totally spontaneous on his part, because there were patterns that I told him I wanted him to play. I can play a little drums myself. I'm not any good, but I know enough to understand the approach a drummer would have. What I did when I was sequencing a lot of the tracks was, rather than work out an eight-bar pattern, I played as if I was a drummer playing along to the music. So a lot of it's quite free on the sequences.
In a way they have their own feel and vibe that's different from the album."
These days it's common for musicians using sequencers to work in short sections, building-block style, but Rebello sees virtues in playing straight through a track.
"If I'm playing along, I find that things come up that I wouldn't have thought of if I'd been sitting there planning it all out logically. Then I can take the ideas I like and kind of tidy them all up. Another thing is to record several takes of a part and then separate out the things I like and the things I don't like, and put together a bassline from the different run-throughs."
For the album, Rebello augmented his M1 and D50 with a VFX and a Prophet 5, while the SG1D not surprisingly lost out to a Steinway concert grand ("I'll always prefer to play an acoustic piano over an electronic piano."). He explains how the music for the album was recorded.
"Two tracks, 'Back to Back' and 'Siobahn', were recorded live by the whole band, with the synths overdubbed afterwards. The rest of the tunes were initially laid down by me on the piano together with the drummer, because I'm very used to playing with him. Basically, the two of us did the whole album in a day, then the bass, sax and synth parts were added afterwards, along with some percussion stuff. The important thing is that because the piano and drums were playing together, there's quite a live sound to the music. Especially in fusion it's the piano and drums that are linked together rhythmically, that's where you get a lot of the excitement from."
While much of the music was written out, Rebello also wanted to incorporate an element of spontaneity into the compositions, and where better to do it than with that jazz staple, the solo.
"I try to keep up with what's going on, but I just can't listen to some of these dance tracks because they're so banal."
"Because I wanted to keep the jazz element there, what I did was say to the other musicians 'there's no fixed part, so improvise'", he explains. "All I had were the chord symbols, as if it were a straight-ahead jazz piece. So in that way I wanted to get the structure of the composition combined with the freedom of the solos. It's like the best of both worlds."
Rebello confirms that the solos, though improvised, were intended to be extensions of the compositions rather than exercises in scale-mania. His own solos, particularly those on piano, are intelligently constructed with a composer's ear for melodic and rhythmic motifs.
Use of synths on the album is mainly confined to subtle yet integral colourings of the music, provided by the VFX, M1 and D50 MIDI'd together. More prominent synth parts occur with the marimba line on 'Golden Fleece' and the calliope melody on 'Siobahn', while 'Tone Row' and the title track are the only two tracks to call forth synth solos from Rebello - cue the Prophet 5. It's clear that for his debut album Rebello wanted to showcase his acoustic piano playing.
"Probably for the next album I'll get more into the synth side of things", he says. "I like playing synths, but I feel that what I've got at the moment isn't really enough to do a synth album with. Also, I'm really into using up the potential of what I've got before I buy anything more, and I don't feel that I've done that yet, although I've done quite a bit of programming on the D50. I like the D50 for percussive sounds and weird soloing sounds, like I've got quite a good Moog-ish sound out of it, and an electric guitar sound which is Herbie-ish. It's good for those sort of things."
"I use that a lot for pad sounds", he replies. "I tend to make up my own Combinations rather than create new Programs, because I find it's a lot harder to get something original out of it at the Program level. The D50's much more flexible in that way,"
While Rebello may not be about to invest in a mass of gear just yet, he's keen to add an analogue synth to his existing two digital synths. As he explains: "When I hear my setup, it lacks the power and projection that analogue synths have."
DURING THE PAST FEW YEARS, YOUNG British jazz musicians have had to deal with more than the demands of forging their own musical style and identity. Players like Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson and Andy Sheppard have all had to contend with the unstoppable marketing machine, which has sought to build up a market for the New Jazz as much through stylish imagery and packaging as anything else. Rebello is aware that, now that he has a debut album to support, he'll probably find himself in the sights of the marketing gurus - who won't fail to notice those good looks. However, he's sanguine about the prospect.
"It's one of those things", he says. "I don't want to reject it out of hand, but at the same time I don't want to take it too seriously and believe that it's important. My approach to it is that it's fun but at the end of the day I don't let any of my personal happiness rely on the hype. I think there are much much more important things in life."
Throughout the interview Rebello has listened attentively to my questions and given thoughtful responses, but when I ask him what he finds most rewarding in his life - admittedly not a light-hearted question - he becomes especially philosophical. After pausing for thought, he answers slowly but deliberately, giving due weight to each sentence:
"Once I would have said when I play well or when I write a good tune, but now, without getting too deep, it's lying much more outside music and much more looking at everything as a whole and seeing music as being a part of it. The reason that I might get satisfaction from it maybe isn't the actual music but is maybe something much more to do with my attitude towards the things around me.
"I really enjoy doing music, but there's so much more to life. You can get very depressed if you take music too seriously. There's bound to be a time in my life when it's not going so well for me musically, so if I'm clinging on to this one thing then I'm going to be devastated when it goes.
"I enjoy music now more than I used to because it's not so much of an obsession. One of the main reasons I did loads of practice in the past was because I wanted to be the best piano player. Which is such a dodgy thing, but that's what drove me. It wasn't a genuine pure love of music, it was this ego thing. I used to be unhappy if I didn't play well, I'd be really pissed off, really upset. I took it so personally, whereas now I'll just think 'Oh well, I'll have to practice more'. It's just common sense, really, seeing how it all works and realising I don't want to go down that alley otherwise I'll end up as this drunken musician who's frustrated and depressed.
"Music should be like a hobby, something you find fascinating. People don't do a hobby because they feel they have to do it, or to gain anything, it just fascinates them. To me that's what it's about, being fascinated and excited like a child."
For now Rebello has plenty to be fascinated and excited about. During November he's touring the UK with his own band to support the album, then in December he'll be heading off to Japan with a variety of other musicians to do "something completely different", while January will see him embarking on a solo piano tour back in the UK.
"It's brilliant that I get a chance to do different things", he enthuses. "I'm already planning my piano tour. If I had to do the same stuff for a year it would probably drive me mad."
With his sights fixed firmly on the future, it seems that Jason Rebello has a very clear view in front of him.