Trevor Rabin: All Colors Considered
“ As long as it's good and well-played, all music is worth listening to. ”
It wouldn't be the norm, that's for sure, but 23 years between solo albums is just one unusual facet of guitarist/composer Trevor Rabin's career to date. Whether taking a stance against apartheid in the early '70s in his native South Africa or turning down the opportunity to play in super group Asia for artistic reasons, Rabin has always done things his own way and stuck to his principles at every step. Rabin is perhaps best known around the world for the mega-hit "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and his 12-year stint with progressive rock giant Yes, but there are a surprising number of strings to the musician's bow.
While it would have been easy to carry on touring and recording with the legendary British group, Rabin felt that after a dozen years a new challenge was needed, and he said no to Yes. So it was in the mid-1990s that Rabin embarked upon another career as a composer of film soundtracks. In a little over 15 years, Rabin has recorded 40 film soundtracks of varying genres, winning numerous awards in the process.
Just when it seemed as though Rabin's music would only be heard in cinema houses around the world, he's back with another surprise in the form of his sixth solo album, Jacaranda (Varese Fontana, 2012). It's his first solo album of original material since Can't Look Away (Elektra, 1989), and it's an inspired collection of guitar- based instrumental compositions. Guest appearances by former Frank Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, longtime associate drummer Lou Molino, his son, drummer Ryan Rabin and, on one track, singer Liz Constintine, add variety and contrasting textures.
To call Rabin a guitarist is rather like saying a decathlete can run, for Rabin's multi- instrumental and arranging prowess is wonderfully documented on Jacaranda. Rabin handles an array of instruments: acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, Dobro, acoustic bass, bass guitar and piano. A classically trained pianist, Rabin's touch on the keys is exquisite and every bit as striking as his virtuoso displays on six strings. The instrumental music runs from bluegrass to contemporary jazz and from classically inspired motifs and cinematic airs to searing metal, often within the same exhilarating song. It's a hugely impressive undertaking and one which Rabin is rightly proud of: "I felt inspired during the whole process," he admits.
A few spins of Jacaranda and it soon prompts the rather obvious question: why did it take 23 years to produce another solo album? Rabin explains: "I got to a point where I decided I wouldn't do another album until I felt ready for it. Sometimes the business takes over, and you think, 'I've got to do an album this year,' and you kind of rush into it. I didn't want to do that."
Certainly, this would also go some way toward explaining Rabin's departure from Yes, but then again, producing several film soundtracks a year sounds like something of a treadmill, in itself. Rabin doesn't see it that way. "It's a much different process doing film music, because you get inspired by the picture. The films are different genres, and a lot of enjoyment comes from that diversity," he says. "But doing an album is much more intense, and I wanted to make sure I had really thought about it beforehand and was ready for it."
Rabin's preparation was a little unconventional in some ways. "As far as the process of going in and recording," he says, "I just let it lead me. I didn't even know it was going to be an instrumental album until I got halfway through it. It happened really naturally."
More than half the songs refer to childhood places in South Africa. "It's funny," says Rabin, "because the music is in no way South African. The inspiration I got while doing Jacaranda was from memories of when I was a kid living there." The opening track, "Spider Boogie," however, is just a piece of helter skelter, finger-picking fun. "For that track, I'd just got an amp in called a Rivera, and I was playing my Rainbow, which is a Westone guitar to try out the amp sound, and I came up with that electric riff. I thought it sounded kind of cool, so I kept playing it. I was just jamming to see what the amp sounded like, but I kind of got somewhere with it and thought, 'I'm going to record this.' It's essentially a jam."
A jam it may well be, but Rabin's jaw-dropping chops on this one- minute wonder bring to mind guitarists Tommy Emmanuel and Scott Hendersonboth of whom Rabin admires greatly. "I love those guys," he says emphatically.
In the main, however, these songs are inspired by nostalgia. "Market Place" is where Rabin's fathera lawyerhad his offices, and it is one of two tracks, along with "Through the Tunnel," that feature Colaiuta on drums. "I had never met Vinnie, but I love his drumming," says Rabin. "I sent him 'Market Street' and asked him how he felt. He said he was quite excited. So he came in, and I thought we'd probably have to spend a day or two on it, but I swear to God, 40 minutes went by, and we had two spectacular takes. I didn't know which one to use. My goodness, he just nailed it," Rabin says, still in palpable awe of Colaiuta's performance. "I hadn't written drum parts that he was restricted to play," continues Rabin, "but I'd written a kind of geography, so he knew where things went, but he just nailed it. He's the most extraordinary player I've ever played with."
Another fairly special talent who appears on the track "Anerley Road" is bassist Wilkenfeld. "I was pretty much the only musician on the album," says Rabin, "but at no time did I think I was going to play everything. I had actually finished the bass on 'Anerley Road,' and, in talking to Vinnie, I decided to ask Tal Wilkenfeld to play bass. I edited the track so that she could play a solo."
An older collaborator was drummer Lou Molino, who has worked consistently with Rabin for over 20 years. "He was a very natural place for me to go," says Rabin. "Lou is the funniest guy in the world," he adds. "With Lou, if you get past a minute without laughing, you don't have a sense of humor. And he's like [keyboardist] Rick Wakeman, just an endless card."
One of the most melodically appealing compositions on Jacaranda is "Rescue," originally composed for the film The Guardian (2006) and featuring wordless vocals from Liz Constintine. Rabin recalls the birth of this piece of music several years before. "I watched this piece of film that was very inspiring, and I'd sit at the piano and compose. Some things were close, and other stuff wasn't. I'd come back into the studio the next day and listen back to my ideas, and then suddenly that melody hit me. It hit all at once," he recalls, "though obviously I had to edit it around the picture." Though the version on Jacaranda is different, the melody remains the same, and Constintine weaves the sort of magic that raises goose bumps. "When Liz sang this, I thought, 'Oh my goodness, she's made this her own,'" says Rabin.
Composing film soundtracks has been Rabin's bread and butter for the last decade and a half, but his first film soundtrack was for a film called The Snowman, as far back as 1976. The first, maybe, but Rabin has little nostalgia for the music he composed for that film. "Am I proud of it? Not at all," laughs Rabin. "I did that soundtrack in the days when there was no MIDI and extremely basic synthesizers. They were barely synthesizers," he recalls.
"I went to a motel on the beach with my now wife and watched the movie on a sheet on the wall and wrote the score. I literally wrote that on paper and then took it to the orchestra, who of course had heard nothing. It was the really old-fashioned way. I would explain to the director what I was thinking, you know, a French horn here and there," laughs Rabin at the memory of such primitive methodology.
Nevertheless, there are a few soundtracks among the 40 that Rabin has since composed that he's particularly fond of. "Flyboys and The Great Raid are two films that didn't have great box-office success, but I was really pleased with them. I did them in England with an orchestra at George Martin's place, AIR Studios. I was proud of those two." Of the 40 films Rabin has scored, 10 have been for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, films that have generated over $2.4 billion in ticket sales.
Did the long years of composing film soundtracks have an effect on the compositional approach to Jacaranda? "I think so, from the point of view of the freedomjust getting away from the thought that it's going to be a rock album where I have to be careful of the demographic and who we're selling it to. I really didn't care," he says. "The main thing was that I wanted to challenge myself as a player and as an arranger. In movies, we use a lot of MIDI instruments, sequencing and loops, but on this album all the instruments are played by humans. There was some manipulation of sound but no programming."
Rabin really threw himself down a gauntlet with regard to the wide range of styles he incorporates on Jacaranda; classical motifs give way to heavy rock riffs, contemporary jazz rubs shoulders with searing shredding, and progressive rock fuses with more pastoral themes. One song can slide between several genres as it evolves, but it's the effortless movement between genres that most impresses. Rabin's quietly satisfied with the way the arrangements turned out. "Though it wasn't present in my mind while I was doing the album, at the end I was pretty proud that here was this demographic nightmare of different styles which really have nothing to do with each other, yet they really worked well together, so I'm happy."
Fans of Rabin the guitarist will be thrilled to hear his playing on Jacaranda, as he's simply never sounded this good. However, it took just a little sweat for his ring-rusty technique to catch up to the level of his writing. "Most of the music was written," explains Rabin. "I wrote the piano piece 'Kilarney,' but I couldn't play it. I had to practice for quite a while to get it. I practiced a lot on the piano, acoustic guitar and the Dobro. I really had to get my chops together."
"Kilarney 1 & 2" is a delightful piano piece that may come as a surprise to many who are unfamiliar with Rabin's classical training. Right at the end of the composition, Rabin added a little classical guitar, and one wonders if it was a question of fixing something that wasn't broken in the first place. "It actually was just a solo piano piece," says Rabin, "but I kept thinking about adding this guitar. When I hear it without the guitar, it's somehow cleaner and perhaps more natural from start to finish. It's a very good question. It's the first time I've been asked it. It might have been better without guitar; I'm not sure."
Much of the music on Jacaranda in fact, is heavily colored by classical music, which seems to exert the greatest influence on Rabin. "Oh yeah, more than anything else," says Rabin categorically. "I would say 80 percent of my time is spent listening to classical music, baroque music, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and so on, but now I'm completely hooked on Schoenberg and Hindemith. It's such amazing music. A lot of it is atonal but still with amazing melodic sensibility."
Rabin has some advice for musicians who wonder how to expand their vocabulary. "It's fine to only be into one genre," he says, "but if you're, say, a jazz musician strictly, but you spend some time listening to bluegrass or classical, some of it is going to infiltrate you and hopefully make your jazz approach somewhat different. As long as it's good and well-played, all music is worth listening to. There's a lot of rock music which they say is classically influenced, whether it's Genesis or Yes, but none of it really compares with the great classical composers. The sophistication of some of the classical composers, their geniusthose guys were nuts."
One track on Jacaranda which harks back to former days is "Market Place," which, with its classical vein, progressive-rock riffs and swirling keyboard, has more than a hint of Yes about it. "I think anywhere you go, it's going to have an influence on you," Rabin acknowledges. "Years ago, I did a solo album called Wolf (Chrysalis Records, 1981); I played some bass, and Jack Bruce played on a number of tracks. I didn't realize it until later, but every time I'd do a bass thing, I'd think, 'Oh my goodness, I've been influenced by Jack, and he only spent a week with me.' Having spent that long with Yes, it was clearly going to rub off on me."
Though Rabin remains on good terms with his former Yes band mates, the beginning of the story wasn't quite the way Rabin had envisaged it. "When I joined the band, the intention wasn't for it to be Yes. All the songs on 90125 (Atco, 1983) were basically songs I had written for a solo album, but I was dropped by the label before I could do the solo album, and I eventually ended up with these guys [bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White], and it was called Cinema. But then [Yes vocalist] Jon Anderson heard it, liked it very much and came on board. I didn't know whether to be sad for being fired as the singer or just to be excited for what Jon brought to it."
Shortly before joining what would become yet another reincarnation of Yes, Rabin had signed a development deal with record executive David Geffen, which took Rabin out to L.A. after having parted company with Chrysalis after three albums. Rabin held no grudges towards the legendary label. "I had no complaints about Chrysalis. They were fantastic, and hats off to them to have lasted three albums," he says. At the time, Rabin was producing Manfred Mann as well as writing. Geffen heard Rabin's materialwhat would go on to become the multimillion selling 90125and signed him for a development deal.
Rabin moved from his London base to L.A., but things didn't go according to either man's plan. "It didn't work out," says Rabin, "ironically, because he wanted me to join a band and surround myself with big-name musicians to do this music. That was his vision, and I didn't want to do that. He said if we didn't see eye to eye, he would drop me, so he dropped me," Rabin says, laughing.
The big-name musicians Geffen had in mind were former King Crimson/Family bassist John Wetton, former ELP drummer Carl Palmer, former Buggles/Yes keyboard player Geoff Downes and former Yes guitarist Steve Howe. The band would become Asia. It's difficult to escape the irony in Rabin joining Yes as its long-standing guitarist joined Asia. "It was a very funny scenario," observes Rabin.
Rabin provided the guts of the music for 90125, with Anderson adding lyrics. The album was an enormous commercial success, with the single "Owner of a Lonely Heart" going to number one in the American charts. In spite of the huge success and Rabin's assured place in Yes folklore, he was always ambivalent as to whether he would have preferred to present his music under the name of Cinema, without the established fan base that went with Yes. Time and distance have hardened his viewpoint. "I've come to the conclusion that I am disappointed," he states. "I would have preferred it if it had been called Cinema."
With Rabin's music, Yes was reborn in the MTV age, and the millions of units of 90125 shifted demanded a lengthy world tour. Rabin, however, almost missed the tour because of a freak accident. "My wife and I were on holiday in Florida. We were in a swimming pool when a rather large lady jumped in and impacted my stomach. I had to have my spleen removed and go through five-odd weeks of recovery. It was pretty strange, and the funny thing was it happened on my birthday."
Lots of funny things happen in Yes, but few as unlikely as the Union (Arista, 1991) recording and tour of 1991-1992, which brought together the old and new Yes, which at one point had seen two bands touring simultaneously while arguing over name rights. Two guitarists, two drummers, two keyboard players plus Anderson on vocals and the only ever-present member, White, on bass, toured North America, Europe and Japan on a revolving stage. With more managers and agents on board than musicians, it was almost Spinal Tap-like in conception. "I think that's where the Spinal Tap idea came from, but a lot of bands think that," says Rabin.
"There were good nights when we did pretty amazing shows," Rabin continues, "but creating a good relationship with Rick [Wakeman] was something pretty special. He's a very, very good friend."
A couple of years after the Union tour, Rabin left Yes to dedicate himself to composing film music. It's been a highly rewarding career move, but he still guards some nostalgia for the old days. "I miss the feeling of being on stage playing," he says, "but I certainly don't miss the travel or the hotels and the inevitable griping that goes on in bands. I can do without that."
This prompts the question as to whether Rabin has any desire to tour Jacaranda, music whose complexity would no doubt pose challenges to reproduce in concert. "We've been looking at possibly going on the road, and I've got some friends who I know could do justice to it, but I couldn't afford them," Rabin says without the slightest hint of gallows humor. "It would be difficult because it's not just three guitars hacking 12-bar; it's very specific parts, and some of them are quite challenging. They'd have to be integrated, and the sound would have to be right."
If Jacaranda doesn't tour, it will still remain a high point of Rabin's discography and his long, storied career. Of great personal satisfaction is the participation of his son, drummer Ryan Rabin, on a couple of the tracks. "Oh, it was amazing," enthuses Rabin, senior. "He's a really spectacular drummer. It took some time to get him on it, as he's so busy. He's got a band called Grouplove, which is doing phenomenally well; they've sold a couple of million singles, though it's not Top 40. It's kind of Beatles-type stuff, and there's some Creedence Clearwater Revival in there, too. It's pop music, but it's got band credibility to it."
Band credibility is something Rabin knows all about. Growing up in a South Africa riven by apartheid in the 1960s and 1970s, Rabin was not indifferent to the malaise that plagued his country, and one of his first serious bands, Freedom's Children, was, in 1972, openly anti-apartheid at a time when such a stance by white South Africans certainly wasn't the norm, and for good reason. "It was very unusual," admits Rabin, "particularly for a band that did quite well and was respected in the industry yet wrote these provocative songs. It looks pretty normal now, but at the time it was pretty dangerous."
Nurture is everything, however, and Rabin grew up in a family that had no tolerance for the human-rights injustices of apartheid. "In the family that I grew up in, it was always made very clear to us that this was a highly evil regime. I come from a particularly anti-apartheid family," declares Rabin. One of Rabin's cousins was Donald Woods, editor of the Daily Dispatch, whose brave public stance against apartheid, and friendship with Steven Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, is documented in Woods' two books, published during his subsequent exile, and in director Richard Attenborough's powerful film Cry Freedom (1987). "He's now looked upon as a hero in South Africa," says Rabin of Woods, who died in 2001.
Rabin has returned to South Africa every couple of years to visit family, and he talks frankly about the changes he has observed in his country. "I think it's gone from an evil regime to a highly corrupt one," he states frankly. Rabin is, however, full of praise and admiration for the chief architect of the ending of apartheid, Nelson Mandela, and for the positive changes that have taken place in South Africa, notwithstanding widespread institutional corruption. "One of the fundamental things, which I'm really happy about, is you don't go into a restaurant these days and see only white faces. Everyone's welcome. It's a normal thing. On balance, as corrupt as the regime might be, it's a hell of a lot better than what was there before."
Musically, Rabin cut his teeth in South Africa, as both a member of popular South African rock bands and as a session musician. "Playing sessions at the time was quite funny because there were no specializations," recalls Rabin. "It was a smallish market. Local country music was quite big in South Africa, so I would go from doing a country session to a conga session the next day to African kwela, and then maybe the next day there would be some orchestral sessions. It was a really good training ground because you were covering all kinds of areas."
Jazz sessions, too, were a regular part of Rabin's day to day. "Jazz? Yeah. One of the guys who I really learned from was Hennie Becke, a phenomenal keyboard player. I used to do sessions with him, and once we got to know each other better, I used to play some weekends with him in his band the Johannesburg Jazz Club." Rabin's jazz chops are heard to great effect on the composition "Freethought," which has a very stylish, contemporary jazz feel, though Rabin's jazz influences are classical. "I used to listen to everyone from [saxophonist] Stan Getz to [guitarists] Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Joe Pass. I used to love all that. My favorite pianist, like a lot of people, was Oscar Peterson.
A lot of Rabin fans who know only his work with Yes may be surprised to learn that Rabin had already achieved enormous success in his native South Africa with the rock band Rabbitt. "We couldn't walk the streets without being recognized and often mobbed by young girlsa tough problem," Rabin concedes. "The band had been together for years before we were even called Rabbitt; we used to play residencies in clubs and grew to where we were doing these really extensive tours, playing these really big placeswe had a fantastic stage setbut the band got to the point where there was over-saturation in South Africa," Rabin explains. "When it came time to do the third album, we knew we had to go beyond the borders of South Africa."
Apartheid, however, dashed the band's ambitions. "It became a problem," says Rabin. "In Rhodesia at the time, now Zimbabwe, there were permit problems, and that was a constant issue. It became a huge issue when we realized we'd got to the limit of what we could do in South Africa." The international community's boycott of South Africa's apartheid system, via trade sanctions and the imposition of cultural and sporting isolation, dented Rabbitt's hope of touring abroad, but Rabin's sympathies were first and foremost with the plight of the blacks. "It was horrific," states Rabin. "That was always in the back of my mind. The government did an amazing job at making sure the status quo was, for white people, natural, like anywhere else in the world, and clearly it wasn't."
Rabin eventually left South Africa in the late 1970s and made his way to London. "It was strange because after living in the ridiculously evil apartheid regime for 20 years, I saw what freedom is really likeit was amazing," he recalls. There Rabin recorded, produced and toured. One of those tours was in support of guitarist Steve Hillage, whom Rabin remembers fondly. "The main thing I remember about that tour was how much I liked Steve Hillage and what a nice guy he was and how generous he was to the opening act. He was just completely pleasant."
Rabin's role as a supporting act playing civic halls around the UK was short lived, as his subsequent move to Los Angeles and the re- launching of Yes meant a return to packed stadiums. If there is a lingering sense of disappointment in Rabin that his music was somewhat hijacked to became a Yes album instead of a Cinema project, he can at least take pride in the knowledge that he achieved the dream of taking his music around the world to admiring crowds.
Now, Rabin's focus is very much on the present. Given the strong classical influence on Jacaranda, particularly on the composition "Storks Bill Geranium Waltz," one wonders whether Rabin has any plans to record an album of contemporary classical music. "I've had something on the burner for a long time, but I've never really got centered on it," says Rabin. "I have an electric-guitar concerto. I'm calling it that, which might sound a bit posh, but it's just a classical electric guitar. What I have sketched out is for full orchestra and electric guitar. I've also included four bagpipes, which just sounded so great. It's a great combination, these very legato, almost sitar-ish guitars and the drone of the bagpipes, which is an extraordinary sound. I really want to come to terms with this guitar concerto," Rabin says.
The guitar concerto sounds like a work in progress, but as Rabin has demonstrated time and time again, when he sets his mind to something, he tends to follow through. "I'm also very determined to do a rock album, whatever that means, with singing on it." So that's two extremely diverse projects to look forward to. Rabin is also composing music for TV, and of course he has no intention of stopping composing for films, a musical art form that gives him enormous satisfaction. Rabin has come a long way since his days of playing rock and jazz in Johannesburg clubs in the early '70s, and, with so many irons in the fire, his story sounds like it has a long way to run yet.
Trevor Rabin, Jacaranda (Varese Fontana, 2012)
Trevor Rabin, 90124 (Voiceprint, 2003)
Trevor Rabin, Live in LA (Voiceprint, 2003)
Rick Wakeman, Return to the Center of the Earth (EMI Classics, 1999)
Tina Turner, Wildest Dreams (Parlophone, 1996)
Michael Jackson, HIStory (Epic, 1995)
Yes, Talk (Victory Music, 1994)
Paul Rogers, Muddy Waters Blues: A Tribute to Muddy Waters (Victory Music, 1993)
Yes, Union (Arista, 1991)
Trevor Rabin, Can't Look Away (Elektra, 1989)
Yes, Big Generator (Atco, 1987)
Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Liverpool (ZTT, 1986)
Jon Anderson, 3 Ships (Elektra, 1985)
Yes, 90125 (Atco, 1983)
Manfred Mann's Earth Band, Somewhere in Africa (Bronze, 1983)
Trevor Rabin, Wolf (Chrysalis Records, 1981)
Trevor Rabin, Face to Face (Chrysalis Records, 1979)
Trevor Rabin, Trevor Rabin (Chrysalis Records, 1978)
Rabbitt, A Croak and a Grunt in the Night (Jo'Burg Records, 1977)
Rabbitt, Boys will be Boys (Jo'Burg Records, 1975)
All Photos: Courtesy of Trevor Rabin