Servant of Song
Profile by Jane Ledwell
Jon Rehder describes himself as a “jack-of-all-trades” musician, known on the scene for playing bass, guitar, piano, or singing as a sideman with all kinds of PEI musicians, and doing sound for live events – but a change is coming. After 45 years as a freelance player, “never knowing two months ahead how I will pay my bills,” Jon will soon be eligible for his pension that will cover a portion of his income. “I can retire. I can do the gigs that I really like,” he smiles.
Fortunately for musicians he supports, Jon says, “What I love about music, is it takes us away from everything else. And what I love is doing that with other musicians.” However, he adds, “One of the transitions I’m trying to make is to be recognized as a singer-songwriter of my own music.
“I’m used to being a sideman, reacting to the situation,” he says. The new challenge for Jon is that, “A solo artist has to create the situation.”
Jon says, “The fundamental challenge in PEI is the ratio of musicians to population base is very high.” Singer-songwriters, he says, face the problem that “only a small percentage of the population wants to sit still and not talk and listen to music.
“I see the same fifty people all the time,” he laughs, for events such as the series he hosts, Wednesday nights at the Haviland Club with Jon Rehder and Friends. The “friends” are any of a number of well-established and emerging musicians in PEI, “most of whom I know but have never played music with,” Jon enthuses. “It’s a chance (for the guest musicians) to play things they might not always play. It’s a fun, good atmosphere.” Making music with them, he says, “is like a vacation.”
The Haviland Club, he says, offers a “pleasant-sounding room.” A pet peeve in Charlottetown is that “the vast majority of rooms that have live music and that depend upon music for revenue are sonically terrible. Many rooms don’t spend the time and money that would be appropriate to have good sound design.” The loud echoing of voices in conversation that drives musicians to turn up the volume to compete can easily be fixed with attention to sound design, Jon insists.
Jon reflects, “All my great experiences as an audience member involved feeling I was in good hands – (thinking) here’s a performer who really knows what they’re doing and will take me somewhere.”
Honoured last year as the Doug Riley Musician at the PEI Jazz and Blues Festival, Jon says, “It was very nice to get the nomination, because I’m not mainly a jazz player.” “Before coming to PEI, in Montreal, bass was what I played most. Since coming to PEI, I’ve played more guitar and piano and been pushed to do solo stuff. I really know music well, I have a reasonable level of competence on instruments, but on none would I call myself a jazz player.”
While he loves many forms of music, his philosophy is always that the music and the musician must “serve the song.” He recalls, “When I was playing jazz in Montreal, there came a point I realized I like songs better than instrumental,” Jon says.
As an art form, jazz requires intensive technical mastery. Jon reflects, “The technique has to serve the heart. It’s hard to make it through the learning curve (of mastering technique) and still have heart to give.”
Jon says, “There a time and place in the natural flow of things, a moment when the drive of the music overwhelms the integrity of the song – and I lose interest. I can’t play for the sake of expressing myself if I don’t think the context is telling a story.”
In 2009 with his band, Rhythm Rules, Jon released a CD called “To Serve the Song” to capture a bit of their philosophy. “My band is really everybody’s band, but I’m proud to take credit for putting them together for the first time,” he smiles, with a nod to bandmates Reg Ballagh, Remi Arsenault, Chris Gauthier. “We spent four days recording songs and came up with this record, We never followed up on it or did anything with it. I had never been involved with a recording before.”
As he considers recording his own songs, Jon notes the pro side of recording: “If you have something beautiful, it’s archived.” But, to him, “Recording is a minefield. It’s subject to pitfalls, traps, and fatal seductions. Recording, you get to that place that’s so relentlessly technical, you have the illusion that you can get everything right...”
Jon says, “The quality of performance, in my belief system, is connected to joy. It’s not trite or surface happiness. You can have joy playing a sad song.
He continues, “My explanation of the experience of music is there’s a sense of timelessness, of taking you out of time.” When everything works, “There is a moment in the music that the tempo hasn’t changed – but you have all the time in the world. You realize you’re all connected, and you know you can do anything you want. As a musician, it’s about staying in there, in the moment, and not getting attached.”
If you’re listening: “You don’t have to know music to experience it.” All you have to do is to serve the song with your presence and be served a helping of joy.