GARY STEEL is celebrating 40 years of music journalism by disintering and re-animating interviews and reviews from his fat archive. In this piece, he meets NATHAN HAINES to talk up his 2003 release, Squire For Hire.
Nathan Haines shakes my hand with an odd finger grip, then settles down to talk, voluminously, about his spiffing new album. Meeting the Press is not a favourite activity for this expat Aucklander, who’s day-dreaming about catching the last of the day’s healing Winter sun at Piha beach, a rare retreat from his fast life in West London clubs and studios.
Squire For Hire is an exceptionally slick thing, a progression on his 2001 outing Soundtravels, on which Haines took his horn and shoved it where the sun don’t shine, suppressed his trad jazz leanings, and made a guest-heavy brew of groove infused hip-hop with a jazzy bent. This time, Haines adds the soulful singing of veteran American diva Marlena Shaw, and guests like Blur’s vocalist Damon Albarn.
“The greats like the Coltranes and Ellingtons and Monks… they’ll provide me with ideas and inspiration for the rest of my life.”
Pure jazz fans may baulk that Haines – who went to New York at the tender age of 19 to study with a bunch of jazz music greats – has seemingly given up on the music form.
“Jazz is quite solo-driven, quite male as well,” says Haines. “I wanted to get away from that at quite an early age. I felt it wasn’t really connecting with the people so much, so I’ve been really trying for most of my life to find a medium… finding songs that have compositional elements that I really love.
“Steely Dan is obviously a big influence on me as a songwriter in that they were very successful, but their music is very multi-layered and interesting.”
Ah, Steely Dan. One of the key moments on Squire For Hire is Haines’ version of their slick 1970s hit, “FM”, sung by Albarn. That it’s carried off with panache speaks volumes about where Nathan Haines’ head is at. Where Steely Dan were attuned to the quadrophonic environment of ’70s hi-fi nuts, Haines’ interest zones in on production values that translate to the sub-bass demands of a club environment.
Although Haines describes improvised jazz as his Holy Grail, and looks at the work of jazz greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis with awe, he’s taken a leaf from their more populist activities:
“Jazz was a popular music at one time. Coltrane did a version of ‘My Favourite Things’, for instance, which was in The Sound Of Music. That was his most popular song, and it was also available on a three-and-a-half minute jukebox version. So you’re talking about one of the greatest improvisors of 20th Century jazz, and yet his biggest song was a Julie Andrews-sung ballad.
“There’s been so much amazing music over the past 100 years, particularly in jazz, so all I’m doing is putting my slant on it. The greats like the Coltranes and Ellingtons and Monks… they’ll provide me with ideas and inspiration for the rest of my life.”
But where the rest of Haines’ current inspiration is coming from is the community of Nu-Jazz musicians he hangs with in West London, a scene that’s expansive enough to acknowledge jazz and funk history, but irradiates it with contemporary production values from the hip-hop and drum&bass spheres.
“You turn on the radio and listen to commercial R&B and hip-hop, and it’s very slick and very well produced. People’s attention-spans are shorter now. They might hear your song on the radio, and if it doesn’t get them in the first five seconds, they’re gonna switch over. If it’s not coming out of the speaker in the car the right way… they’ll go and buy the Nelly Furtado album or whatever”.
* Nathan’s landmark 1995 album Shift Left has just received the 25th Anniversary treatment. Look out for Steel’s no-holds-barred interview with Nathan in a forthcoming issue of Metro.