Hue Blanes: ‘I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a world leader’

If you missed the Hue Blanes Trio during their May residency at the brand new ‘Jazz Lab’ in Brunswick, there’s no need to despair; you can always catch the sui generis pianist at his other residency, though this might mean that you have to be up early on a Sunday. Because on Sundays, Hue Blanes performs the mass service at the Moreland Baptist Church. “I play all the hymns at the service”, he explains. “It’s a great little situation; I bought a grand piano and they’ve given me a studio place to practice, they let me use the space to put it. It was really nice of them, so in exchange for that, I’m playing for them every Sunday”.

Does this mean that Hue is religious, a devout Christian, worrying about sins and the afterlife? Not really. “I’m definitely not a huge believer in religious institutions and stuff like that”, he says. “I’m more interested in the spiritual practice, like meditation. I’m open to different spiritualities and open to anything that relates to good: if it’s a positive message and helps other people, then I’m interested”, he adds, describing how the church he plays at helps asylum seekers. “Once a month we cook for them”, he says. “I think people should worry about their current lives, start treating animals and other humans better and not just expecting everything good in the afterlife”.

Certainly, if Heaven exists, there must be a place there for a brilliant pianist, putting his extraordinary skills to good use every Sunday, soothing the souls of the churchgoers, although Hue Blanes insists that his motives are not selfless:“Playing hymns and all this complex music, sometimes with little to no preparation, is a very good thing for my playing and for my music”, he says. “Even though I’ve not been religious, I’ve always been interested in hymns and spirituals, especially if it’s played well. There’s a great Hank Jones record with Charlie Haden, in which they play African-American spirituals; it’s a very good album, I listen to it a lot. This kind of music demands a special way of playing, with a lot of restraint and respect not only towards the melody but to playing all the inner voices as well. And I improvise, which is good for my jazz playing. I think when you play in certain style it’s nice to add something else to it as well. It’s what we do with my jazz trio, we play standards, but with a lot of different elements to it; classical, spanish, all sorts of things. I’ve never been that much for just playing one thing. I like to mix it up”.

This, of course, is a perfect example of understatement. Because “not playing just one thing” is the least that one can say about Hue Blanes. In fact, he only recently released two albums, with another one to come very soon. The first one, is ‘Holiday‘, a collection of his own quirky Randy-newman-esque musings on the human condition, disguised as songs that he delivers – just his voice and his piano – with an almost detached style. And then there’s ‘I Choose You‘, the outcome of his duet with Parvyn Singh, which waslaunched at Stonnington Jazz. “She is a great singer with the Bombay Royale”, he says, describing how the Singh & Blanes duet came to be. “Five years ago, she saw me playing an Indian instrument, the harmonium and got in touch with me to give me some hints and tips about the instrument. So we got together and I decided to include her in a support gig I was playing for Jeff Lang; we did a duet, she came and sang, and the crowd really liked it, so we decided to do a project and write a few songs together”.

Not many artists can pull off making three albums of different music at the same time, and it is natural to wonder how each of the projects influences the other. Could they have all been part of the same, triple album, showcasing Blanes and his genius, in all his complexity?

“It’s an interesting question”, he says. “One of my favourite musicians is Harry Angus; he’s on a lot of different projects, and what I’ve always admired about him is that he always separates them. It might be confusing for the audience, if there’s a little bit of classical here, and a little bit of jazz there, and then a little bit of Indian music and alittle bit of my songs. It’s just too much. So it’s good for the audience, I think, to separate it, to hear the different projects as they are and it’s also good for me to be able to go into a project, into a style, and put all my energy into it”.

To his mind, the three projects are very clearly separated. “Every different project has its different voice”, he asserts. “The Singh & Blanes duet is more about romanticism and flashbacks to a more romantic time, while my own solo work is about my intricate thoughts and emotions; it’s all about me being by myself, in solitude. It’s a bit more personal and reflects my individual take on the world. Then my jazz project is about my compositional ability and my fluency on the piano”. It’s these two specific areas of his artistic persona that he’s about to further explore, as he’s setting for a two-year masters course at one of the most acclaimed music schools in Europe, The Royal Conservatory of the Hague (so, yes, there are not many Sundays left, if you want to catch his church gig).

Of course, Hue Blanes is not limited to just three projects. This year, he won the sixth PBS Young Elder of Jazz Commission, which means that he will be performing at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, presenting his new work, Things That Have Been Said an instrumental interpretation of famous (and infamous) quotes and speeches from history. “I’m taking famous speeches, or speeches made by famous, influential people of the 20th century mainly, and try to make music out of those speeches”, he explains. “Part of it is trying to copy the melody of the speech, or writing a separate piece commenting on the mood of what they’re saying. In some parts, there will also be audio clips of the speech, while we play around it”, he says, expressing his gratitude to the program, which enabled him to pay his band at industry rates, even for rehearsals.

The idea itself owes a lot to Oliver Nelson’s work on John F. Kennedys speeches. “He wrote all these works, right after JFK died and his music is an incredible orchestration of each speech and its mood”, he says. “You should hear the speech where he’s saying that artists should be recognised in the highest place of any decent society”. And then, after a pause, he adds: “Maybe I’m biased”.

As for the speech that spurred this project, it may come as a surprise. “It was the Donald Drumpf inauguration speech; there’s a lot of great melody there”, he explains, and immediately starts singing with a wavy voice: “Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, fellow Americans and people of the world, thank you”.

“There’s a melodic anchor to that”, he says, explaining his fascination with this project. “We have to investigate how world leaders use their voices to get their point across and convince their voters”.

Still, there’s a certain paradox there, for an artist who seems to be so introspective as Hue Blanes is, to work on what is arguably the most extrovert public activity, the political speech.

“I guess I agree”, he admits. “It’s interesting, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a world leader. They are doing a lot of travelling and get a lot of sleep deprivation; I wonder if it’s their own egos or need for power that keeps them going. I’m interested in that kind of behaviour and admire it, in a weird way”.

‘Things that have been said’ will be presented at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival on Saturday 10 June.