16/05/2013 18:48 BST | Updated 16/07/2013 06:12 BST

Jason Rebello: The Jazz Sage

To paraphrase WH Auden, we live in an age when the daubs of schoolchildren are ranked above the great masterpieces, but this hasn't dissuaded the geniuses from their toil. Take Jason Rebello, a man who, when he first came to the attention of the public and critics, was hailed as the finest young jazz musician this country has produced.

In the late 1980s British jazz boom, classically-trained pianist Rebello made his mark, finding himself in the company of players such as Steve Williamson and Courtney Pine. They and their cohorts redrew the benchmarks of jazz excellence with a virtuosity that silenced lesser players daring to call themselves jazz musicians.

'From about the age of 21 to 25, I made three of my own albums with BMG. I was doing my own thing,' says Rebello. The jazz scene ran tangentially to the acid jazz movement, a period which saw a sudden bloom of musical talent across the country.

Rebello's debut LP, A Clearer View [1990, Novus] which was produced by jazz great Wayne Shorter, was a game changer, notable for Rebello's stylistic range and pellucid tone not unlike that of McCoy Tyner. Rebello was able to switch from Herbie Hancock-inspired jazz-fusion to straight ahead bebop, such was his accomplishment.

But an existential angst took hold soon after his early success. 'I stopped playing for a while and had plans to become a monk,' says Rebello, matter-of-factly.

Brought up in Wandsworth, south London, Rebello, whose ingenuous manner is very much that of the serious musician, also possesses a quality not easily nameable, until, that is, he mentions his antecedents. 'My dad's parents were Indian, and he was brought up in Burma,' he says.

Rebello, therefore, hails from the twilight of the Raj (as does this writer), carrying about him the ghost of the East. Call it a cultural eccentricity, a placelessness, one's thought processes rooted in a vanished culture which survives only in the pages of EM Forster or John Masters novels.

This perhaps goes some way to explain Rebello's career volte-face. 'I had become interested in Buddhism and had started meditating when I was 20, and after several years I felt the need to pursue it fully.

'I think this was because I was enjoying a level of success that made me feel increasingly alienated. I wasn't feeling part of the success. I felt that there was more to life,' he says. 'I felt I was missing something. That there was something else.'

But his attempt at self-imposed monasticism failed. 'I still meditated but I remained unsure of what to do next, so I got a job in an office. I started off working in the post room and making the tea. I was about 26. People knew me in the office as the musician and couldn't work out why I was doing it. I did that for about a year. I ended up doing a bit of computer programming because I didn't want to go straight back into music. Frankly, I was unsure of what I was doing.'

To what would he attribute this departure? 'I was raised a Catholic, so I suppose I had always felt that spiritual pull. Looking back, I had struggled with marrying the worldly life I was leading to the spiritual. I thought that it had to be one or the other.'

But music again began its persistent tug. 'I felt a need to commit to something, so I got married and had two kids. I moved to Bath, which was close to my meditation centre. And then I received an email from Sting...'

Following the untimely death in 1998 of Kenny Kirkland, Rebello was invited by Sting to replace Kirkland in the band. 'I stepped in. I didn't want to be a solo artist at this time, so it was a perfect opportunity for me.'

Rebello toured the world as part of Sting's band for six years, then spent a further six years touring with Jeff Beck. Was Rebello catching his breath? 'I did that side man thing for 12 years, but now, today, it's time for a change. I'm 43 now, and coming back from touring to the jazz world has been tough, but playing smaller gigs is fun. There's no disconnect with an intimate audience. The bigger the venue, the greater the feeling you have to project something.'


Music becomes transcendental only when the musician, on stage, divests himself of his ego - a difficult trick to pull off given that one of the reasons he climbed on stage in the first instance was because of the ego. 'The biggest mistake is to worry about what your audience might be wanting to hear. Don't think too much, just enjoy the music,' he says. 'An audience can tell when you're abandoning yourself to the music and they appreciate it. The magic moments in live playing are intangible.'

Rebello's talent has seen him tour with notable artists including Wayne Shorter, Gary Burton, Branford Marsalis, Mica Paris, Carleen Anderson, Omar, Peter Gabriel, Pee Wee Ellis and Joss Stone. 'The musicians I admire are the ones who can lose themselves in a performance, like Jocelyn Brown, Sting and Peter Gabriel. Joy Rose, who I work with at the moment, is also capable of it.'

A current collaboration with drummer and producer Troy Miller - a man who has worked with Lonnie Liston Smith, Amy Winehouse, Gary Bartz and Roy Ayers among others - will soon result in a new album. Rebello will also be appearing at the Brecon Jazz Festival this summer in the company of Courtney Pine and Jools Holland.

A man can only feed his spirituality if he has, first and foremost, paid fealty to his talent, his calling, if you like, and Rebello, a musician who continues to teach, lecturing at various schools including the Guildhall School of Music and Bath Spa University, has at last managed to achieve a balance in his life.

'Wherever you are right now is the life you should be living,' he says calmly, 'because if I've learnt anything, it is that life only becomes difficult when you act on ideas of where you think you ought to be...'

© Jason Holmes 2013 / /@JasonAHolmes

Photographs courtesy of & Ronald Santerre, respectively

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