Steve Hackett: From Blues To Baroque

The prog rock guitar guru takes an instrumental excursion while Under A Mediterranean Sky

Steve Hackett 2 (Art: Ron Hart)

Guitarist Steve Hackett is nothing if not prodigious.

With more than 30 albums to his credit and a parallel purpose that’s involved in sharing the music he made with the band Genesis–the group that he served throughout much of the ‘70s (a period that included such iconic albums as Nursery Cryme, Wind and Wuthering and Selling England by the Pound)–his music spans a wide array of genres, including prog, rock, classical, jazz, rock, and other exotic elements as well.

Hackett’s efforts haven’t stopped there; his work with Yes guitarist Steve Howe in the short-lived supergroup GTR, his series of live Genesis tributes and last year’s autobiography “A Genesis In My Bed” easily attests to his multiple talents. 

It seems appropriate then that with the launch of a new year, Hackett opted to further his reach, partnering with longtime collaborator Roger King and a group of international musicians for an all instrumental album titled Under A Mediterranean Sky. His first “acoustic” effort since 2008’s Tribute, it was inspired by Hackett’s travels throughout the Mediterranean in the company of his wife Jo and all the wonders they witnessed in any number of locales along the way. With its sweeping strings and array of world music influences, it’s not quite accurate to refer to it as “acoustic,” although its hardly electric either. It is, in fact, another excellent example of his stunningly eclectic stance and an ability to shift his style anytime his muse so dictates.

“It sounds more like an electric album when it first starts, given that it has one of the biggest intros I’ve had on any album ever,” Hackett suggests. “It challenges the notion of what is progressive rock and what is classical music. It challenges the notion of people who say to keep it simple, keep it roots. Some people may struggle with this. It’s a far cry from Buddy Holly. It may seem heretical to some, while other people may not think it goes far enough. But hey, you can’t please everybody. I just do what moves me.”

Indeed, it’s been a mark of Hackett’s more than 50-year career that he’s never been beholden to any one sound or style. 

“Somebody once described my music as a pan-genre approach, and I thought that was a good way of looking at it,” Hackett insists. “One fan compared me to Gene Hackman, who was a character actor. It’s nice for people to say they recognize a bit of quality in what you do. It’s nice to have the ability to act out and not have to champion any one particular style. I’ve been pretty schizophrenic.”

Indeed, that’s a habit said he acquired early on, having grown up in the ‘50s while listening to pop radio and its juxtaposition of music from a wide variety of artists that were played back to back. “You’d have radio shows featuring Mario Lanza next to Glenn Miller next to Elvis Presley, and it was all just considered to be popular music,” he recalls. “We didn’t realize what we were listening to in those days. It was Bach next to big band music. It was all just popular music. It was like those traveling shows they had in the ‘60s. You’d have Englebert Humperdinck and Jimi Hendrix and the Monkees all on the same bill. The audience didn’t quite get it because you’d have a different audience for each. And yet, that was how family entertainment was served up. It was good and wholesome back then.”

Steve Hackett Under A Mediterranean Sky, Inside Out Recordings 2020

Hackett also acknowledges that instrumental music can be challenging for some listeners, given that the lack of lyrics makes for a steeper hill to climb in terms of acquiring immediate accessibility.

“A lot of the stuff I make is very thematic,” Hackett suggests, likening his music to the symphonic scores written several centuries back that was eventually usurped by Hollywood as soundtracks for many of their classic films in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. “The internal life of the movie, the characters you didn’t see, were represented by these elaborate scores. It’s enlarging what’s onscreen. You take away the soundtracks and what do you have? Think about Star Wars without John Williams.”

Hackett says that the desire to pursue other possibilities spurred his decision to leave Genesis when he did at the tail end of 1977.

 

 

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” he reflects. “I think I was basically heading towards a more virtuoso style of music, and Genesis were heading into a more simple area, whereas we combined the two in the early days. That rift was coming. They pulled in one direction and I pulled in the other. But along the way we did some great stuff together.”

In fact, that’s the same effect that Hackett’s captured with the sounds that illuminate the new album. It’s a decidedly evocative set of songs that effectively represent the awe and wonder of the sites he and his wife encountered on their journey.

“I had been to the Mediterranean many times as a player, but this time we went as tourists,” he explains. “We went to Morocco and stayed with the Bedouins and been to the place where Lawrence of Arabia had been. We traveled to Egypt and saw the pyramids and it was like they had been freshly painted just yesterday. We went to Jordan and saw Petra. It really was Indiana Jones sort of stuff. We journeyed by camel and we traveled the whole length of the Nile by boat after traveling across Egypt by car and seeing the same sights that Anthony and Cleopatra saw. If you’re a musician, and in search of exotic locations, there’s nowhere more exotic than Egypt. So much of the monuments are still standing and in fabulous condition. The temples are extraordinary. The tombs are glorious and hugely inspiring. We spent a night under the stars. It was just incredible, very h easy stuff. So the idea came up of having a Mediterranean theme and having each track having an exotic sort of feel to it.” 

Then again, Hackett’s no stranger to cinematic expression. “I’ve had some of my stuff used for movies and I’ve been hired to do that specifically on occasion,” Hackett reflects. “But there are very few gigs out there for the epic-sized scores that I dream up. It would be nice to be let loose on that. I must say that I was very taken with the scores that Roger King came up with. I write stuff, my wife writes, Roger arranges and we negotiate every note between us. He has the skills to work with either orchestra or orchestral sounds. We use every trick in the book to make things sound symphonic and huge.”

Steve Hackett 2021 Tour poster (Photo: Google)

Given the limitations of pulling musicians together during the press of the pandemic, Hackett and King were forced to adapt their efforts accordingly, enlisting a varied cast of international musicians from four different countries who shared their contributions remotely and subsequently sent them in. “We were going to use an orchestra, but due to limited resources, we had to vary our sources, Hackett explains. “It’s a fairly small team but they are a great team and there are some very talented musicians involved. Some of the instruments we used are not necessarily western and so they are more exotic. The sort of whirling dervish kind of things, the Egyptian and Arabian oud, duduk, violin, keyboards, and the flute, as well as the nylon string guitar. There are some guitar doodles, but it’s not all about that. It’s a far cry from Buddy Holly. If you want your music to be roots, then I’d say this album is probably not the one you’d want to listen to. But if you’ve heard Paco de Lucia, Andre Segovia, the Genesis stuff…there’s a link to all of that. We tried to make it as suitable as possible, and to make it very rich, so the combination of these extraordinary instruments would enrich each other. I do think it will be a surprising album from the very first note for anyone that listens to it.”

Of course, anyone who recalls Hackett’s contributions to Genesis shouldn’t be all that surprised, given that the intricacies he shared in the band’s best music laid the groundwork for this and other albums he’s released in the years since his departure.

“It’s the spirit that unites all that,” Hackett maintains. “I got into the Genesis stuff when it was at its most detailed and embroidered, and that’s what turned me on to other bands that were doing that sort of thing — for example, the Beatles with “I Am the Walrus.” Although it comes from the pen of a musician sitting down with an acoustic guitar, it’s the extraordinary arrangements that come out of that, which is absolutely huge and something that drives me. And not only me — bands like the Flower Kings, Jeff Lynne — they all say that’s where they got on board. If they can do it with orchestra, maybe we can also make sounds like that ourselves. These days, the technology has become miniaturized that you can do extraordinary things. You can conjure up a lot of things without traveling. What do you do when you’re in lockdown?  It’s kind of like a remote passion. We can have musicians from opposing countries on the same track and I’m very happy to take part in that, especially in a situation where music can do something diplomatically that politicians fail to achieve. That’s been a hobbyhorse of mine for quite some time. Countries apart but spiritually very close together.”

 

 

Despite the disparity, the album manages to consistently sound in sync. “It’s hung together by different soloists blowing freely over some fixed points,” Hackett concurs. “I normally use the word jigsaw, but it’s really a mosaic I think, because they all bring color to it. Everyone may not be aware of what everyone else is doing, but when you’re building something up from scratch and at a distance, you can only hint at what you’re after. It’s a kind of dance in a way that starts off very slowly and then builds. It’s dance music, but not as we generally know it.” 

Then again, Hackett has never put limits on his own creativity or the realms that he explores. “Within the umbrella itself, there seem to be no limits to what you should and shouldn’t do in terms of progressive music. It allows you to wander into different areas. Muse is a good example of a British band that wanders into a piece of something influenced by Beethoven or Chopin. It seems like there’s no limits to that. Technology makes that possible. For me, it comes down to playing one instrument you love and working with less. If you were on a desert island, what would you do? Would you be able to entertain yourself, let alone others? I see my musical journey like a bit of a mosaic. At the end of my journey, I’d like people to say that there wasn’t one overall style, that it was fluent and I made music without prejudice. Blues, Baroque and beyond.” 

 

VIDEO: Steve Hackett “Andalusian Heart”

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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