| HARDCASTLE II
Though his initial, most renowned hits, “Rainforest” and “19”, burst onto the scene in the mid eighties, in recent years composer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Hardcastle has created a similarly stirring niche for himself in the realm where funk drenched keyboard rhythms mingle with smooth contemporary jazz. His JVC Music output since 1993 has taken on slightly different forms from The Jazzmasters I and 11, featuring vocalist Helen Rogers, and Kiss The Sky’s Millennium Skyway, to his solo label effort, Hardcastle, in 1994 — but all bear his unmistakable trademark mix of infectious melodies layered over ultra-seductive synth textures. His level of chart domination is unparalleled, with The Jazzmasters spending nearly a year and a half on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart, and the single, “Walkin’ To Freedom,” weighs in as one of the genre’s most popular tracks ever. Certain to continue in these formidable footsteps is the similarly engaging Hardcastle II, which draws upon the style of past successes while forging several new sonic innovations as only this native of Great Britain can.
“A ‘Hardcastle’ project is generally a cross between a Jazzmasters and Kiss The Sky Session,” he says, “with Jazzmasters basically a smooth jazz outfit, and Kiss The Sky a rougher urban effort. My latest is also a bit more experimental, both vocally and instrumentally. I like taking chances, focusing on melody but keeping the tunes engrossing throughout by introducing new instruments and sounds. My feeling is, if you’re going to say something, go for the jugular. My main goal is to always keep the music intriguing and the listener intrigued.”
Once again, Hardcastle succeeds at this task brilliantly, complementing his piano, synthesizers, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, percussion and drums with flute and sax-men Chris “Snake” Davis and Phil Todd, vocalists Helen Rogers (his partner in the Jazzmasters), Steve Menzies, Imani, Sharon Stone (not the actress), and verbal contributions from his daughter, Maxine.
Hardcastle claims that one of the luxuries of a “solo” project is the experimentation he’s afforded by using different vocalists. Menzie’s soaring voice helps launch Hardcastle II in dramatic, soulful fashion over the laid-back, hip-hop grooves of “Livin’ In The Shadows,” while Imani adds a touch of romance to the lighthearted street vibe that drives “Got To Be Love.” Rogers invokes the easy funk sound of the Jazzmasters on the sensuous hypnosis of “Star of the Story,” and the lights-down-low ballad, “You Are The One.” On the moody, haunting, but ultimately optimistic “Look To The Future,” Hardcastle features his young daughter, whose spoken message of hope is both playful and innocent. The cover of Steely Dan’s ” Do It Again” on the first Hardcastle kept strong the musician’s long running propensity for artful cover tunes, and on Hardcastle II, he adds to that tasty tradition with a quirky, pointed soul-on-rock take on Pink Floyd’s classic, “Money,” featuring lead vocals by Stone and recorded spoken word bites by Sir Lawrence Olivier and Bob Hoskins.
Ultimately, however, a Hardcastle project boils down to sparkling instrumentals covering attitudes that range from the lighthearted melodic silk of “Bird Island” to the wistful acoustic guitar meets flute closing track, “Acoustic Dreams.” ” Destination Atlantis” offers another sampling of the David Gilmour guitar influence within an odd-metered, jazzy context. “Warm Glow” throbs easily, its melody trading off between acoustic piano, sax and flute, and the lovely “Peace On Earth” is an elegant snapshot of hope and understanding in a troubled world. Hardcastle’s self-professed most stirring moment, however, comes on the aggressive “Joker’s Wild,” which finds him twisting retro sound and new age sensibilities into a modern, snazzy dance framework.
“That piece is the most intense piece I have ever produced,” he says. “It’s heavily textured and very busy throughout. Normally, a tune with this much going loses some portions of the overall groove at some point, but this one keeps it up. It really works because it’s quite raw and even experimental.
I’d never entwined sax and flute at the same time before, for instance. I honestly think it’s my best track since ‘Rainforest.’ It’s going to be hard to beat.”
“Rainforest,” the 1984 #1 R&B and Dance hit which was reprised for a new generation on Hardcastle, may have been his commercial breakthrough, but his musical career actually began several years earlier when he gave up his career as a stereo salesman and joined the London-based band, Direct Drive, as a keyboardist. That first musical experience led to underground club hits with two singles, “Time’s Running Out” and “Don’t Depend On Me,” on Oval Records. His year with this ensemble also marked his first collaboration with future Jazzmasters cohort Helen Rogers.
After Direct Drive broke up, Hardcastle and group vocalist Derek Green formed First Light, which recorded two successful singles for London Records ÄÄ “Explain The Reason” and “Wish You Were Here” which hit the Top 20 of the Dance Charts in the U.K. Following this endeavor, Hardcastle formed his own label, Total Control, with the late, revered club DJ Steve Walsh in 1983. Several more dance hits followed, paving the way for “Rainforest” (which hit #50 on the pop charts), and the amazing ” 19,” the single which made Hardcastle a household name. “19” was a Top 5 R&B and Top 15 pop hit in America, sold 3.5 million copies worldwide, and spent six weeks at the top of the British charts.
“Chrysalis, my label at the time, tried to dissuade me from doing a song they felt was too political, but I had seen a poignant documentary on the subject matter, and felt like saying something to make people think,” recalls Hardcastle. “I honestly wasn’t trying to make any statement about whether the U.S. involvement in the war was right or wrong, but simply to focus on the sad reality that many of the soldiers killed were still teenagers. It opened many people’s eyes, and many veterans thanked me for what I did, so it was obviously a good idea in the long run.”
His second Chrysalis release, No Winners, also Fared well, earning him five consecutive Top 20 hits in the U.K. and Europe. The late 80’s found Hardcastle moving more and more into production for other artists, and he scored successes working with artists like Ian Drury and the Blockheads, and as a remixer of tracks by Barry White, D-Train and Five Star, among others. He has also composed scores for many film and television projects, including Top Of The Pops. In 1990, he formed Fast Forward Records and released “Swing” by the De Boys, a hit in Germany and Holland, which eventually hit the Top 20 on Billboard’s Dance chart. Also in 1990, his first Kiss The Sky release came out on Motown, launching his resurgence in the current decade.
Over the last five years, his JVC Music releases, with their trend-setting smooth soul sensibilities, restored his solo career to its former, chart-dominating glory. “The JVC projects were progressions of the kind of music I have always liked,” he says. “I keep learning and trying new things. When I wanted to learn guitar, I locked myself in the studio and taught myself, the result being “Walkin’ To Freedom,” one of my best-received hits. Considering that I planned to be a motorbike racer until I had a real bad spill, I think I’ve made all the right choices in my career.”