Anything But Look, keyboardist Jason Rebello’s first album as a leader since 2007’s Jazz Rainbow is one of the comebacks of 2013, a return to the limelight as a leader of one of the most precocious talents of the 1990s

Plucked from the height of his reach on the jazz scene of the day to tour the world with a global rock star, the keyboardist, now 44, spent significant stretches on the road and recording with Sting appearing on the Brand New Day, All This Time, and the Sacred Love albums, and most recently as a member of blues-rock guitar legend Jeff Beck’s band where he can be heard on such albums as Emotion and Commotion, and Live at Ronnie Scott’s.

His return to the jazz fold can be interpreted as something of a liberation for a musician who nevertheless unites several types of music within his overarching concept. Fundamentally there’s jazz, inspired by Herbie Hancock deep down, and there’s soul, a music of continuum that has Stevie Wonder as its lodestar, and then there’s keyboards-led jazz-rock all coming together in a prodigious very natural technique.

Living near Bath in the south-west of England for the last 17 years Rebello has been absent from the jazz scene, he says, for several practical reasons. “It’s mainly because I was touring with Jeff Beck and Sting. When I had time off I was spending it with my family and didn’t feel motivated. Jazz Rainbow was made when my kids were young and I was watching these TV programmes, learning all the tunes. It amused me doing ‘Thunderbirds’!” Now having left the Jeff Beck band, he says: “If I was going to rely on touring I’d be missing out on my own stuff and spending a lot of time away from home. It’s been 12 years touring.”

While not exactly a maiden voyage, as Rebello has certainly been there, done that, and got the T-shirt as much as anyone on the jazz scene currently around, he is enjoying discovering a new scene by attending concerts and earlier in the month enjoyed “a fantastic gig” given by someone from his own generation ex-Loose Tubes saxophonist Julian Argüelles playing with the Golden trio’s pianist Kit Downes and drummer James Maddren, with hot newcomer bassist Sam Lasserson, who Ethan Iverson of hit US trio The Bad Plus sought out to gig with in London earlier in the year, members of the “next” generation. “I’m finding it quite inspiring,” Rebello says speaking on the phone from his home last week.

It’s hardly a case of looking back, though; as part of the subtext of Anything But Look is about the here and now. Rebello initially sprang to prominence during the late-1980s and early-1990s “jazz boom” in the UK when a wave of new talent he became closely identified with who included the totemic figures of Courtney Pine and Andy Sheppard, Tommy Smith, Julian Joseph, and Steve Williamson, inspiring a wider public and renewed media fascination caught up in the new jazz, with a particularly emphasis on homegrown and often youthful players who connected with a generation coming to the music for the first time and who hardly related to the hitherto fairly impenetrable image of jazz in the UK.

Rebello signed to a major label maybe too soon in his development and recorded for RCA’s Novus imprint, with no less a figure than Wayne Shorter producing his 1990 debut, A Clearer View, that made his name. Influenced by a wide ranging musical input including jazz-rock fusion, and soul music, Rebello had studied at Guildhall, one of the most progressive music colleges in terms of teaching jazz at the time, and A Clearer View clearly announced a significant new presence on the UK and wider international jazz scene. Rebello followed this bright beginning with Keeping Time, the soulful Make It Real, with guests including Maxi Jazz, later of Faithless, and Last Dance. And then there was a gap that would only end with the release of Next Time Round which Rebello recorded in New York, to be followed eight years later by a tentative return to his heartland genre with Jazz Rainbow, a whimsical side project trio album based around children’s television and movie music themes.

The brand new album, Anything But Look, was a year in the making, and is the real McCoy, a mix of contemporary jazz, funk, soul, Latin and fusion. Recorded at the Sphere studio in London with Rebello joined by bassist Karl Rasheed-Abel and drummer Troy Miller and a large cast of musicians and singers also featuring on the album, including bass guitar session king Pino Palladino (heard to effect only last year on José James’ infectious ‘Trouble’), Paul Stacey, Jeremy Stacey, Joy Rose, Xantoné Blacq, Sumudu Jayatilaka, 19-year-old star in the making Jacob Collier, Miles Bould, and The Vigil’s Tim Garland, plus Rebello’s own son George who is just 14 and who plays drums on ‘Is This How?’ the album’s most radio-friendly track featuring the remarkable vocals of Will Downing.

Signed to Lyte Records, run from the County Down base of drummer David Lyttle who Rebello guested with in trio mode at this year’s City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival, Rebello wrote everything on the album, with “input”, he says, “on a couple of the songs from the singers.” It’s a fine collection of songs and matching instrumentals that represents Rebello’s most assured, mature, and significant album to date.

The album opens with ‘Know What You Need’ featuring Omar, the soul singer who Rebello first knew as a student at Guildhall and who, Rebello says, he “completely respects and admires”. Next is the story of a train romance, ‘The Man On The Train’, featuring Barnsley-born British-Sri Lankan singer Sumudu Jayatilaka here on one of the best songs of the album lyrically. Rebello took the advice of his former Sting playing partner guitarist/producer Kipper (Mark Eldridge) who knew Sumudu and thought that it would be a good idea to include her on Anything But Look. And then there’s the major instrumental features ‘Without A Paddle’ and laidback title track ‘Anything But Look’ with its big Mini-Moog solo, set against drummer Troy Miller’s expansive beat.

The remaining tracks: ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, featuring singer Alicia Carroll; ‘With Immediate Effect’; the superb ‘Is This How?’ featuring classy US R&B/soul star Will Downing whose version of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ was an unlikely dance hit in the late-1980s; ‘In The Thick Of It’ featuring Jacob Collier; ‘New Joy’, where Rebello is reunited with singer Joy Rose who appeared on Rebello's albums Make It Real and Last Dance; and finally ‘Lighten Up the Load’, featuring singer Xantoné Blacq known for his work with the late Amy Winehouse, complete the album.

Preparing for Anything But Look Rebello says one thing he didn’t want to do was embark on a trio album. “There are so many trio albums. Part of the thing instead is in some way to showcase people I’ve known and liked. I basically hope people who are working with me will do well themselves, everything is a balance of friendship: it’s family, but not literally!”

Anything But Look is keyboards-informed and further personalised by the inclusion of the singers Rebello has recruited. Listen to ‘Know What You Need’ and you’ll hear Rebello’s Headhunters-like accompaniment behind Omar’s voice, a link to one aspect of Rebello’s soulful signature 1990s sound and here more convincing and effortlessly grooving than ever. His solo on the track has that mobility and sheer touch only a very few jazz musicians can ever aspire to, let alone accomplish.

While clearly a studio album produced using modern studio methods more familiar in soul or rock production the album does not feel overproduced and part of this revolves around an analogue-inclined process that saw Rebello salvaging an old Mini-Moog keyboard, a favourite he had put away with the advent of digital technology and one that he had bought from an unlikely vendor, 1980s band Ultravox. “The analogue kit was a bit much to carry around and it would break down. So the Mini-Moog all went in a box and stored away. Working with Jeff Beck got me working with virtual synths, but the modern Mini-Moog never sounded any good so I got my old one out. It wasn’t working but I got it fixed and it sounds just amazing.”

The album is full of startling Mini-Moog and you can hear it with its futuristic yet very human sound on ‘In The Thick of It’, ‘With Immediate Effect’, and a brilliant solo on the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, as well as the title track, the poetic-sounding ‘Anything But Look.’ Rebello explains the title. “As human beings we’re in this slight predicament. We’re always looking, always feeling that something is not quite right whether it’s music, career, relationships, ‘I’m not a good enough person’. It’s as if we’ll do anything to get away from not being satisfied. It’s almost as if it’s too frightening to say we’re OK.” And back on the scene once more Rebello is more than OK. Story: Stephen Graham
Jason Rebello pictured. Photos: courtesy Red Fire Music
Anything But Look is released by Lyte Records on 4 November