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Jack Hues and His Muse: The First Thing I Need is Music

Jack Hues and His Muse: The First Thing I Need is Music

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I guess the joke was that if you listen, in the way people do, and the 'critique' is nothing more than 'Oh, it sounds like folk'...but the process is 'jazz.' This all prefigures PRIMITIF which takes the same approach but directed at the resources of a rock band, rather than a 'jazz' group.
—Jack Hues
In the world of rock and pop music, the most successful musicians and groups tend to emerge in their early 20s with a burst of creativity that few can sustain past a handful of recordings. Unlike in classical music and jazz, where musicians and composers continually develop and evolve well into old age, rock musicians generally do not. But there are some who do, and Jack Hues, the lead singer and guitarist from Wang Chung, one of the most successful songwriting duos of the 1980s, is one of them.

Hues' background is not that of the average pop star—he studied music at Goldsmiths College and at the Royal College of Music in London, and his writing throughout his career demonstrates harmonic and melodic sophistication that is not common in pop music. When Wang Chung ended in 1990, Hues moved away from pop and began working in musically more progressive genres, which, in 2003, eventually led to the formation of "Illuminated," a jazz group whose primary outlet was live gigs in southeast England. In 2007, the name of the group changed to "Jack Hues and The Quartet" and they released their first recording entitled Illuminated.

The album is somewhat of an homage to several of Hues' musical inspirations, which includes classical music and, of course, jazz. There's a nod to Bill Evans (Waltz for Mel), Johannes Brahms (Brahms Blues, which quotes his Fantasy in A minor, op. 116 #2), and Miles Davis (Miles Off and Fallujah, below, which references Davis' Nefertiti). This is indeed strange territory for a pop star; Hues is about as far from Wang Chung as one could get.

The musicians on these recordings are some of England's finest studio musicians, as well as some jazz heavyweights like Paul Booth (saxophone) and Dave Smith (drums), and more experimental "free jazz" players like Sam Bailey. For Hues, this is primarily a compositional and performance outlet, he leaves the extended improvisation to the professional jazz players. He does improvise, but he's not a jazz guitarist in the usual sense; he told me that he loves jazz, but that he was "not interested" in learning the bebop vocabulary that professional jazz artists share as the foundational language of jazz. His improvisational contributions are a mix of blues and free jazz, which is unexpected and fresh. Overall, it is a compelling sound that mixes the various influences of the different members of the group quite successfully. There are times that it sounds like traditional jazz, but pop, classical, minimalist, and even modernist experimental influences are also found.

Here is "Tokyo Angelic," from the group's second album, Shattering:

The textures that begin this reflective ballad are akin to those found in modern jazz of the more minimalist bent, as is often heard on ECM recordings.  Towards the end,  it becomes more aggressive and raucous, with a snarling overdriven Rhodes keyboard solo that serves as the climax of the piece. This kind of dichotomy is found regularly in this music as its aesthetic sensibilities morph from one pole to another. Listen to "Canterbury Tales: The Check-Out Girl's Tale," also from the second album, which demonstrates similar tendencies:

This piece is part of a suite of six pieces that are connected in the same way that some 19C song-cycle, like Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe, are—they are separate pieces, but they flow into one another, and the overall effect is heightened when listened to as one multi-movement piece. "The Check-Out Girl's Tale" begins with an up-tempo, odd meter (5/4) vamp over a bass pedal. The improvisation is quite free, certainly free of traditional jazz and bebop conventions, and as before, there is a surprising stylistic turn towards the end when Hues enters with rock guitar chords, resurrecting some chord progressions directly from his writing in Wang Chung. The blend of styles works wonderfully. The effect of these changes of character is quite strong and quite literal, as if the original characters are revealed as something other than what they at first appeared to be. This is not surprising given a suite of pieces that references Chaucer's masterwork, which features many twists and turns: characters are often disguised, their true natures being revealed in the course of the narrative, and other familiar plot devices from English literature from the Middle Ages. (Hues regularly draws on fine literature for his inspiration, as we shall see moving forward in his oeuvre.)

Hues' next release features the progressive rock band from Canterbury, Syd Arthur, a modern day incarnation of the Canterbury Scene from the '60s and 70s, where distinct flavors of progressive rock and rock/jazz/classical fusions flourished. They performed live gigs, featuring an eclectic mix of music that included covers of one of the original Canterbury Scene bands, Soft Machine, an arrangement of Igor Stravinsky's neoclassical Violin Concerto in D, written in 1931. Hues and the Quartet released an EP entitled "Nobody's Fault But My Own" which was recorded in 2012. It contains only one track—a 22-minute version of Beck's tune of the same name (without vocals).

The arrangement is a delightful mashup of different styles—there's ambient electronica which morphs into free group improvisation, followed by a raw, muscular, and surprisingly acerbic guitar solo from Hues that feels almost Bitches Brew-like in its demeanor. When the sax has its turn as soloist, it's another new flavor—free jazz improv over a saucy rock groove with Hues' overdriven rock guitar as the accompanying agent provocateur. The piece continues with a jarring keyboard solo, which is followed by more group improvisation that is quite dissonant and avant-garde. Interspersed between each of these sections is the powerful verse of the tune—its soothing melody and simple harmonies provide relief and repose from the more challenging sections that surround it.

Once again, we see a wide variety of influences seamlessly put together in an authentic exploration of Hues' musical background and personality, which, as we have seen, ventures far beyond the pop music from his early days in Wang Chung. The traditional jazz listener may, however, be somewhat perplexed; the music sometimes sounds like more traditional jazz (generally of the more avant-garde variety), but the other influences take it into different directions that are decidedly not jazzy. It's great music, but one has to approach it with open ears because it pays no heed to genre boundaries. Listeners' expectations are thus both fulfilled and challenged by jazz that is reimagined from the perspective of a musician who is not a trained jazz musician. (I find this to be one of the most interesting aspects to consider here because of what it reveals about jazz as a process rather than as simply a genre—jazz continually shows itself to be much bigger than that, its aesthetic flexibility and openness is as remarkable as it is unprecedented.)

After several years exploring instrumental jazz (and reviving Wang Chung with a new album, Tazer Up!, in 2012), Hues then takes The Quartet in a different direction—back to vocal music with the release of Thesis On The Ballad in 2015. This brings Hues' considerable abilities as a vocalist into the mix. This also introduces lyrics into the music, which provides Hues with opportunity to indulge in his second love, literature. Lyrics are of primary importance to Hues—he is deeply interested in philosophy and literature, with the autodidact's zeal and passion that is quite apparent in the academic allusion (it's a "thesis" after all!) found in the album's title. He teams up with the renowned poet, Kelvin Corcoran, whose poetry provides the enigmatic lyrics for the album. Hues talked to me about the Corcoran's poetry and the inspiration for this recording:

What attracted me to Kelvin's poems were the way they contained elements of pastiche of old English Ballads (as one might encounter them in Fairport Convention) and modern-day awareness, self-expression (particularly "An Expanse of Water" and "Class War"). I wrote into the pastiche— especially in "Psychopaths"—but used rock vernacular to express the modern and timeless elements, as in "Barbara Allen." I remember an interviewer asking me, "So where does the Barbara Allen experience come from?" and then answered himself "I guess we all have our Barbara Allens..." and that is the essence of what I was (intuitively) doing. Using this pastiche "folk" style to create something modern -it's very "Canterbury" which is saturated in its medieval past, but is still a modern (in the sense of current) city. I chose to work with Sam Bailey and Rutledge Turnlund (bass) because I wanted to perform the songs rather than just record them -the performative aspect of them is important and as a consequence they have spaces to improvise built into them.

The music is jazz inflected, with acoustic piano and double bass featured prominently. The focus here, however, is on song-writing rather than improvisation so the jazz elements are muted at best. As before, it resists  easy genre classifications, easily moving from pop to jazz to folk, as in the opening track referenced above, "Barbara Allen:"

"Barbara Allen" begins with a Beatles-esque introduction, that quickly becomes an acoustic jazz ballad with pop vocal stylings, and ends with a folksy refrain in which the vocals become less folksy and more rock oriented. Hues talked about the folk and jazz elements of the piece:

I guess the joke was that if you listen, in the way people do, and the "critique" is nothing more than "Oh, it sounds like folk" that's ok—but the process is "jazz." This all prefigures PRIMITIF which takes the same approach but directed at the resources of a rock band, rather than a "jazz" group.

The folksy charm is thus somewhat of a rouse—the album has some dark moments that creep up on the listener as the music follows the lead of Corcoran's poetry, which takes some dark turns. Listen to "Class War and Sex War," in which a frolicking minimalist piano figure in the accompaniment returns with electric guitar to close the piece as the lyrics ominously declare that "We shall all be made to pay one day, hear the dogs bark and the footfall at the door."

The next album, ROTE-thru (2017), returns to jazz, but Hues introduces another element into the mix that makes this recording the most challenging of the group's jazz explorations: spoken word poetry. The spoken word element hearkens back to the 1950s Beat Poets, which is generally not hard to listen to, but in this case, the two poets, Simon Smith and David Herd, are featured prominently as "soloists." Smith speaks on the left track and Herd is on the right, and they are often reciting different poetry at at the same time, which is cognitively challenging for the listener.  It's definitely not easy listening, but it demonstrates again that Hues has strong ties to literature and to the avant-garde, and in this case, he indulges both. It's difficult music in the same way that the early 20C expressionists in classical music or the free jazz players of the '60s and '70s are difficult for the average listener to approach. The group is clearly aware of that, as was—they present the densely packed and dissonant music largely in miniature forms, as the Austrian expressionist composer Anton Webern often did. Several of the tracks are under one minute in duration, and there are only two tracks that are appreciably over two minutes in length. The piece was inspired by Frank Ohara's poem "Biotherm," and the 3rd movement of Luciano Berio's "Sinfonia," which Hues says is "probably the most important piece of Modernist music" for him. Here's the eighth track on the album,"tick the box of life, other," which clocks in at a scant 0:44 seconds.

Hues' recently released a new solo recording, without the Quartet, entitled PRIMITIF. As with Thesis On The Ballad, he once again leaves the instrumental jazz behind and returns to rock/pop songwriting, but it is imbued with influences from classical music. It is his most ambitious and sweeping project to date—a double album that functions like the best of the progressive rock "concept albums" from the 1970s. The tracks by themselves are strong, but together as one long musical narrative, the recording is even more powerful. In listening to the entire opus, one hears the connections between the songs, which occurs not only in the lyrical narrative, but, I think more importantly, in the compositions themselves. On this recording, Hues masterfully utilizes compositional techniques from classical music, like leitmotifs (rhythmic and melodic) that link the songs together, much in the same way that, as mentioned previously, classical song composers like Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann did in the 19C. (Tellingly, the "Special Thanks" dedication includes "Spotify, for the deep catalogue of Mahler Symphonies and Schubert songs, J.S. Bach and Mozart fugues.")

The album is bookended with two cover songs. It opens with a cover of "The Look of Love," an Oscar-winning song by Burt Bacharach, which was part of the soundtrack of "Casino Royale," (the tongue-in-cheeky 1967 Bond movie with David Niven and Peter Sellers), and it closes with "Video Games" by Lana Del Rey. The position of these two songs is, I think, strategic—they provide a relatively lighter entrance and exit to the rest of the album, which is musically and lyrically intense. Hues is both composer and lyricist for all of the songs, and the lyrics are particularly revealing; he ruminates on themes of love, loss, identity, and meaning. This is a mature artist simultaneously looking back on life with all of its blemishes and its happinesses reconciled; he also looks to the future, with its limitless creative and personal possibilities providing the inspiration for continued growth. Hues has always shared his personal stories in his lyrics, but on this album, as lyricist in particular, he draws deeply from his life experiences, sharing with poetic imagery that is raw and unguarded.

If my interpretation of "The Look of Love" as a narrative prologue is correct, then "Whitstable Beach" can be heard as the first track of the album. It sets the tone for the rest of the album, with its incessant eighth-note motif, reminiscent of some of the minimalist composers like Louis Andriessen. 

The lyrics are worth examining closely:

You're swimming just out of reach
I shiver on the shingle beach
And each wave that breaks
Floats you a little further from the shore

I drown on the shore
You breathe in the sea

Slate-grey white-capped sea is Melancholia
My intention is an isthmus stretching far into the breakers
Covered over by the tide relentlessly
Twice a day unalterably
Forcing me into acceptance
And acceptance feels like drowning

I drown on the shore
You breathe in the sea

I coaxed you out sometimes
But your mermaid self
Struggled in Venice
Writhed in California
And in land-locked Berlin, you nearly died

Thrown in the deep end he proved you to yourself
Walking away gave you selfhood
Letting go illuminated his love

The last thing you need
The last thing you need

The last thing you needed was Music

The lyrics are poetic and enigmatic, in a Wallace Stevens sort of way. Multiple interpretations are possible, but, as with many of the songs, "Music" (tellingly capitalized) plays a central role—it is Hues' lifelong muse, his constant companion and his endless quest. This theme is more explicitly stated in "A Long Time."

I have focused so much on the lyrics because they are so important to Hues—they are both meaningful and revelatory. The music is composed to support and substantiate the lyrics and the larger narrative, and as such, the marriage of the two is the defining feature of the music's construction. Like any song cycle in classical music, or concept album in rock, one of the real aesthetic delights comes as the relationship between the music, lyrics, and overall narrative unfold over repeated listenings.

This is an outstanding and emotionally compelling recording that must have been a Herculean lift for Hues—a late career double album, and a concept album no less, is something that we generally only see from musicians in their 20s and 30s. While unusual in the popular music realm, this is not unusual in jazz and classical music, where musicians and composers often deliver their best work in the latter parts of their careers. Hues dug deep for this recording, harnessing tremendous musical, lyrical, and philosophical material to show yet another side of his lifetime of impressive creative pursuits.  

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