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Trevor Rabin's Comeback Album: Jacaranda
Trevor Rabin’s Jacaranda is a paradox: It’s the long-awaited comeback album by one of music’s most prolific artists.
Rabin may have garnered a reputation as one of the world’s great rock guitarists during his tenure in the band Yes but, as far the public is concerned, his amps and signature ’56 Stratocaster have been largely silent over the past 18 years.
Not that the Rabin has been idle since he left Yes in 1994. As a soundtrack composer for blockbuster movies such as Enemy of the State, Remember the Titans, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Armageddon, National Treasure and Get Smart, he typically releases two to three albums of orchestral scores per year. But the just-released Jacaranda, Rabin’s fifth solo album and his first since 1989’s Don’t Look Away, is the songwriter’s proper return to guitar music.
“I wanted to do the album—and I’ve been doing it since around 2007 until now—but it’s been on and off because of the films,” says Rabin in a recent phone interview with Rock Square. “Last year, I called my agent and said, ‘Look, I really need this year to really try and focus on this.’ So that’s how I got to finish it.”
Just don’t expect to hear anything like “Owner of a Lonely Heart” on Jacaranda.
“All I knew is that I wanted to make a record for me, as opposed to a record company or A&R guys,” says Rabin.
Jacaranda is, indeed, the sound of someone who is no longer a yes man. For starters, it’s a purely instrumental album. And though Jacaranda’s 12 tracks include some of the most thrilling rock guitar of Rabin’s career, it’s not strictly a rock record. If anything, there’s a pronounced jazz influence on a series of utterly unpredictable and adventurous compositions that are pretty much unclassifiable—it’s music that transcends genre. An early title for the album was Barrier Free.
For example, when the track “Anerley Road” begins with traditional jazz licks, you may wonder if you’ve accidentally stumbled into a Wes Montgomery record. Even more bewildering: The track quickly segues into bluegrass dobro and then transforms into something that resembles the ethereal progressive rock of Yes’s “I’m Running” before veering into spacey jazz-rock guitar over jazzy drumming and piano. Amazingly, it works. The seven-minute epic ends with flurries of fiendishly fast fingerwork.
“Luckily, I keep my technique up as much as I can, even in the middle of films. It’s very easy to get rusty,” says the South African-born guitarist.
Rabin decided not to lay down any rules for the album, but it soon became apparent that he wasn’t going to write traditional songs for it.
“I wasn’t going to try and create a vocal album,” says the 58-year-old guitarist. “In fact, [former Yes vocalist] Jon Anderson, who I’m still very friendly with, has been listening to it over a period and every time he heard something, he said, ‘Let me put a vocal on it.’ It was always going to be an instrumental record. It was going to be me going in and testing my chops and writing stuff that challenged me and challenged my playing.”
The 15 instrumentals on Jacaranda would challenge the playing of any guitarist, including Rabin fans such as Eddie Van Halen and Richie Blackmore.
The album’s fourth track, “Through the Tunnel,” features some of Rabin’s most dazzling fretwork to date and boasts three epic guitar breaks over the course of five minutes. The first solo sounds like a stampede of animals in the jungle, all mayhem breaking loose as Rabin’s makes his instrument roar, honk, caterwaul, neigh, shriek and howl. Wild doesn’t even begin to describe it. The second guitar break evokes the exultant feeling of a prison break as the instrument seems to celebrate newfound freedom with a jubilant cry. The third guitar break finds Rabin’s guitar racing at a million frets per minute to keep up with Vinnie Colaiuta’s muscular drumming. This slice of bravura jazz rock would make Jeff Beck drop his guitar pick.
Rabin was aware of Colaiuta’s work with the likes of Beck, Frank Zappa and Sting but had never met him. As he tells it, “I just thought he’d be so great for ‘Through the Tunnel’ and ‘Market Street.’ I called him and he was interested. Nicest guy in the world and very friendly. I sent him an MP3 over the Internet and he said, ‘I’d definitely like to play on this, if you’ll have me.’ Very humble. This quiet guy walked in here and, suddenly, this steamroller was let loose.”
In turn, the drummer recommended his regular partner in time, bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, to Rabin. The 25-year-old Australian, another alumnus of Beck’s band, wowed Rabin with a unique flavored jazzy solo on “Anerley Road.”
Jacaranda also features a wordless vocal by Liz Constantine on the cinematic track “The Rescue,” a reworking of a piece that Rabin originally wrote for the movie The Guardian. Heavy hitter Lou Molino III, who played drums Can’t Look Away and Live in L.A., the concert album from that tour, is behind the kit for most of the songs. Jacaranda also includes family. Ryan Rabin, the drummer in the successful indie rock group Grouplove, pounds away at the kit on “Me and My Son,” an instrumental that orbits around one of Rabin’s most memorable rock guitar riffs.
For the most part, though, Jacaranda is an auteur record on which Rabin plays all the instruments.
“I wanted this to be an acoustic album,” reflects the musician. “When I say ‘acoustic album,’ I mean an album created by my hands and my head. The instruments are what they are. There’s piano, there’s organ, there’s double bass, there’s a bass guitar, dobro, a little bit of banjo, and electric and acoustic guitar. And that’s pretty much it.”
There’s one other ingredient that gives Jacaranda a distinct flavor: Rabin’s South African upbringing.
Trevor Rabin can tell you a thing or two about Beatlemania. He experienced it, or something very much like it, as a member of South Africa’s first homegrown pop sensation, a four piece named Rabbitt.
“It was pandemonium. I literally couldn’t go out the front door,” recalls the guitarist. “There was security around all the time. Most days, your concern was how you were going to hide in disguise. When we did shows, we had to sneak in in a certain way. I remember there was a store called John Orr’s. We did an in-store promotion in John Orr’s and the police had to come and close it down. It was a complete riot.”
Up until then, Rabin had lived a fairly ordinary life.
“In the street I was born in, Anerley Road, there was always an explosion of Jacarandas up and down the road. It was always a pleasant place to come back to,” says Rabin of the inspiration for the composition “Anerley Road.” The Jacaranda, whose purple flowers blossom each spring, still holds a sentimental value for Rabin, who has mentioned the tree in the song lyrics for Yes’s “I’m Running” and his 1989 solo hit “Something to Hold on To.”
“I also always loved the word,” says Rabin, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past 30 years. “In fact, when I built my studio, one of the first things I did was plant a Jacaranda tree outside. At first it was 5 feet, now it’s about 20 feet tall.”
Rabin begun learning the piano as a child and, at age 12, picked up a guitar. His formative influences ranged from The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix to Schumann and Tchaikovsky. In the liner notes to a Jacaranda song titled “Zoo Lake,” Rabin admits that he used to rent a rowboat to smoke pot with friends as a teenager. It was during that period that the guitarist also discovered jazz. On Jacaranda, the gently swinging track “The Branch Office” is named after a Johannesburg jazz club where Rabin’s mentor, a jazz pianist named Hennie Becker, was a regular fixture.
“He taught me so much,” says Rabin, who pays tribute to Becker in Jacaranda’s sleeve notes. “I’ve always loved jazz. My mother was a lover of jazz in a big way and my father liked Stéphane Grappelli, though he was the lead violinist for the Johannesburg symphony orchestra for almost two decades.”
Rabin’s memories of his father’s office’s location in Johannesburg inspired him to name Jacaranda’s second track “Market Street.” Godfrey Rabin encouraged his son’s exploration of rock music early on and, later, guested as violinist on Rabbitt songs. The young band, partly fronted by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Duncan Faure, knew they had something special from the start. Rabin bailed out of the University of Johannesburg, where he’d been studying classical music with an eye to perhaps becoming a conductor.
Rabbitt’s two albums, Boys Will Be Boys (1975) and A Croak and Grunt in the Night (1977), mainly trafficked in string-laden ballads and soft rock. Think Paul McCartney & Wings but with mild South African accents. Sophisticated Rabin compositions such as “Hold onto Love” and the Pink Floyd-influenced “Lifeline” heralded the arrival of a formidable pop songwriter and an electric guitarist with a distinctive neo-classical style. Result? Big sales and sold-out concerts during which women showered the stage with their underwear. But Rabin was growing antsy. Despite international album distribution and interest from ELO and Black Sabbath manager Don Arden (father of Sharon Osborne!), the promise of overseas Rabbitt tours never materialized, in part due to the pressure of anti-apartheid groups.
Rabin absconded to London to begin a solo career. (Faure followed not long after and joined Bay City Rollers.) Though Rabin’s first three solo albums—Beginnings (1977), Face to Face (1979), and Wolf (1981)—weren’t big sellers, Rabin’s talents didn’t go unnoticed among musicians and record company executives.
Shortly after relocating to Los Angeles in 1981, Rabin hooked up with former Yes musicians Chris Squire (bass) and Alan White (drums). Both men were reeling from the demise of Yes and an ill-fated attempt to start a band with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page called XYZ (as in ex-Yes, Zeppelin). Soon after, Rabin, Squire, White and original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye formed a band called Cinema. It was during recording sessions with producer Trevor Horn, who had sung vocals on the Yes album Drama, that Jon Anderson expressed interest in joining the band. To the record company’s delight, Cinema then changed its name to Yes. The resulting 90215 album spawned a Rabin composition that became the legendary band’s sole number one hit. Chances are you may have heard it once or twice.
“I loved ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart,’ because the final version respected, and didn’t change too much, my original demo,” says Rabin of the band’s biggest hit. “The demo was important to me because there were certain production elements that I really didn’t want to change too much. It was great working with Trevor Horn because he really respected that.”
Rabin cites the song “Changes” as another favorite from 90125, a worldwide success that was followed by a global tour. The follow-up record, Big Generator, only emerged four years later due to creative tensions within the band and also with Trevor Horn, who dropped out of the project and left Rabin in the producer’s chair. Big Generator utilized the multi-harmony vocals of Anderson, Squire and Rabin to hooky effect even as it ventured into more adventurous arrangements than anything on 90215.
“On Big Generator, I think ‘Love will Find Away’ and ‘Shoot High, Aim Low’ are two of my particular favorites. It was really powerful live,” says Rabin.
But after the tour, Anderson quit Yes and formed a new band with former Yes members Steve Howe (guitar), Rick Wakeman (keyboards) and Bill Bruford (drums). A court battle ensued between remnant of the 90215 lineup and the newly formed Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe over the rights to use the Yes name in concert promotions. Rabin kept his head down and reactived his solo career with Can’t Look Away.
In 1991, Rabin found himself once again drawn into the internecine politics of Yes. A series of record company and management maneuvers led to Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe joining forces with Rabin, White, Squire and Kaye in 1991. The subsequent release of the album Union was the strangest development in the history of a band that has had more lineup changes than the New York Knicks. None of the songs on Union featured all eight members. Rabin contributed three songs to Union: the lead single “Lift Me Up,” “Saving My Heart” and “Miracle of Life.”
“It was a peculiar album because I pretty much did ‘Lift Me Up’ and ‘Miracle of Life’ on my own in the studio and then bought Alan in at the end to do an overdub on it and then a bit of Chris here and there,” recalls Rabin. “I played all the keyboards and then got Jon in at the end. The rest of the songs were an Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album that [Arista label head] Clive Davis wasn’t happy with, which is how it all came about. He called me for a single and I said, ‘I’ve got a single, but I’m not giving it away.’ And that’s how we got involved.”
The Union world tour, featuring the eight Yes musicians sharing the stage was, nonetheless, a financial success and Rabin says that the band was good together despite some “obvious clashes” (a veiled reference to musical differences with Yes guitarist Steve Howe). A 2011 DVD/CD document of the tour, Union Live, backs up Rabin’s claim of the band’s tight playing. (The hosts of television’s What Not to Wear would have a fit it they saw the band’s wardrobe of kimonos, Robin Hood boots, gypsy shirts, ponchos, and, in Jon Anderson’s case, a silk pajama pantsuit with epaulettes sewn on the shoulder.) One of the highlights of the concert video is the coruscating solo during “Yours Is No Disgrace” in which Rabin not only breaks the speed limit but also pulls off extreme guitar maneuvers that are probably illegal in 20 states.
”One of the bright things from that tour for me was that Rick Wakeman and I became very close musically and personally,” says Rabin.
Yes reverted to the 90125 lineup its next album. Talk, released in 1994, was not only one of the first albums to fully utilize digital recording technology, but also the first project in which Rabin and Anderson sat down to co-write material from the very start. The album includes several complex and lengthy songs in the tradition of Yes’s 1970s epics. Talk also showcases Rabin’s burgeoning interest in the sort of genre cross-pollination that characterizes Jacaranda. For instance, the extended version of the single “The Calling” detours from hard rock to pop to spacey progressive rock to a Nashville-style pedal-steel guitar solo.
But Talk tanked. Released at the height of grunge, Rabin laments that “the music just wasn’t what people wanted to hear at the time.”
By the end of the Talk tour, Rabin felt burnt out. As he tells it, “I was in Hiroshima with my assistant and I said to him, ‘You know, I’ve done close to a thousand shows with Yes. I think I’m done. I don’t think I can do another one.’ I went back to L.A. and left the band and got into film.”
To date, Rabin had written scores for over 40 movies from inside his home studio.
“One of my better scores is The Great Raid,” reflects the composer. “And then another movie that could have done well was The Guardian. There’s some score stuff in there that I’m happy with. I think National Treasure I was happy with and Armageddon and Fly Boys. Now, obviously there are some that I don’t mention….”
(That would be, uh, Snakes on a Plane.)
Rabin’s return to the orchestral world that he studied during his youth was a proud moment for his father, who passed away in 2000.
“I’m sad to say he didn’t get to see or hear Remember the Titans, which is one of my proudest moments,” says Rabin. “He did get to see Armageddon, which I think is still the most successful box-office movie I’ve done. I was very happy about that. But I think his proudest moment was when he came to New York to see Yes at Madison Square Garden. We were there three nights and he was there every single second.”
It turned out that Rabin still had a part to play in the peculiar history of Yes. In a Nixon goes to China move, Steve Howe called Rabin to invite him to tour with Yes in 2008. Rabin declined because he wasn’t keen on joining a lineup of the band that didn’t include Jon Anderson on vocals and he was already committed to film projects. The guitarist did, however, join Yes on stage in Los Angeles to play “Owner of a Lonely Heart” in 2009.
“I got up and played with Yes a couple of years ago at The Greek,” says the South African. “It was fun and I enjoyed it and you feel like a big deal for three seconds but, at the end of the day, I just don’t have the same patience to spend time creating an album and then spending the next year playing that stuff. I’d rather create something new in that time.”
Tantalizingly, Rabin is keen to make an album with former Yes members Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman.
“Time is the real enemy and schedules are the real enemy,” says Rabin. “Our desire to do it hasn’t lessened with the problems of time.”
A few years ago, the guitarist convened with Jon Anderson to write some new songs. “Unfortunately, they’re in such an embryonic stage that I can’t even begin to explain them to anyone, least of all Jon,” says Rabin.
The songwriter is also mulling a solo album featuring traditional songs with lyrics that he has written, though he says, “Some of them don’t fit together – I need to think about what I’m going to do with that.”
In the more immediate future is another instrumental album in the vein of Jacaranda. The composer says that he mostly writes pieces in his head. The challenge then is to try reproduce the jazz rock sounds he imagines.
“With classical music, and speaking from my experience of neo-classical music of film scores for orchestra, at least there you have a preordained palette,” says Rabin. “If you’ve studied orchestration, you know what the barriers are or the rules are of engagement with those instruments. So I usually go straight to paper if I’m writing for a film. But with electric instruments and this whole electronic age, there’s no set sound for a synthesizer, it’s not like a violin, so your parameters are never ending.”
Realistically, it may be a while before Rabin releases a follow-up to Jacaranda. For the immediate future, the composer is committed to scoring a new TV series called Zero Hour that will screen on ABC in the fall.
“I just want to continue to try and do as good a score [to movies] as possible,” concludes the guitarist. “I still love doing it. If I get to the point where it becomes work, then I’ll stop doing it.”