Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Sax symbol: Jazzman Nathan Haines making serious music

Our most famous jazzman, Nathan Haines, talks to Greg Dixon about his new old-school jazz album, surviving a heroin habit, feeling like a fraud and why he and his wife are moving to London.

'I actually shouldn't be here, I died twice and was resuscitated by medics twice.' - Nathan Haines. Photo / Dean Purcell
'I actually shouldn't be here, I died twice and was resuscitated by medics twice.' - Nathan Haines. Photo / Dean Purcell

All was as it should be that night in London. As it has done since 1965, the neon sign outside - "Ronnie Scott's ... open nightly" - blazed orange, blue and green above the door of the Soho institution as the diners and commuters drifted along the narrow, famous Frith St.

The billboards by the door spilled the big news. On this August night, Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club - a blend of clubhouse and old-school nightclub, by way of Mad Men - was packed to hear a boy from the colonies, Nathan Haines, live with his London band.

Standing up the back, grinning in the half-light of the kitschy table lamps, British DJ Patrick Forge, dressed in a bow tie and cheesecutter, watched as his old mate - only the second New Zealander after Beaver to headline at the famous jazz club - delivered what Forge would later describe as a sublime performance that was rapturously received by the full house.

"With a set of originals and covers," Forge wrote after of the gig, "the music Nathan played that night firmly established in my mind that this was a very different Nathan Haines from the man who left London in 2005 after enjoying considerable success as a 'crossover jazz' artist.

"This was obviously a new level of Nathan and his mastery of the music had grown in a way that demanded that he should be stretching out more ..."

Only Haines, in a cool black jacket and white shirt buttoned at the collar, was doing no such thing. The musician, who for many at home and abroad is best known for blending jazz with dance grooves, could not stretch while he delivered his sublime performance because, well, he was propped up on a stool. It seems that all was as it should have been that night in London, except for his left foot.

"It was the middle of the day, so I wasn't even drunk," Haines says of the foot. "If I was drunk I probably wouldn't have broken it."

It wasn't, of course, supposed to be this way. The month before Haines headlined Ronnie Scott's, he and his new wife, Auckland fashion designer Jaimie Webster, had honeymooned in Provence, taking a house in the village of Goult for a month. This sounds like heaven. It was heaven. But the romantic, rural idyll went from summer bliss to bucky-boo one afternoon while he was playing, like some sort of French tourism board cliche, a game of petanque.

"I didn't drop a ball on my foot, as you would expect. I was playing in bare feet, I was playing in a driveway and I just slipped like that [he rolls his foot] and I thought, 'oh that hurt', and then about four hours later I was in shock. I woke in the morning and it was all black, so I had to go to hospital. The guy there said, 'yeah, you've broken your foot' ... they put me in a cast up to my knee.

"I played Ronnie Scott's in the cast."

The jazzman looks kinda blue. When I knock at the door of the sunny, airy but compact double-storeyed cottage he and Webster share in Ponsonby, Haines answers it wearing a striking shirt in two tones of blue - like two half-shirts of different blues sewn together longways - and a sky blue pork-pie hat. He's wearing a smile. His feet are bare. I can report the cast is long gone.

However, he is not, so far as I can tell, anything close to blue in his head. Quite the opposite. When I asked him, towards the end of our happy, chatty hour, whether he was feeling at his happiest right now, he told me he is, before quickly saying "but I don't want to come across as smug" and then changed the subject.

He has, at not-quite-40, and with more than half his life spent playing music for an audience, much to feel happy about. He's been a happily married man for a year now, though the ceremony last year was a formalising of his and Webster's long-term relationship. He is happy, too, because the day we talked his new album, his eighth, The Poet's Embrace - which feels like an evolution to him - was a week from going on sale and was already generating all kinds of attention from the media; indeed, a local critic who has been only moderately supportive of his recent albums apparently loves the new one.

Listening to it one stressed day at work, I found it worked its magic on me. It's reflective, calming, celebratory but also, well, kinda blue. It is absolutely pure jazz; there are no dance beats, no dub stylings, no vocals like his album of two years ago, Heaven and Earth. It's like something from another age.

"What I've done is a jazz record which is ... acoustic bass, acoustic piano, drums, the old-fashioned saxophone quartet. In the same way that rock bands are referencing [classic rock combos], I'm referencing the classic jazz quartet and making a record which I want to listen to because I don't like the sound of a lot of modern jazz ...

"The album is important to me in that I'm interested to see what people think of it and also, on an international level, I think this will be the start of the next stage of my career. So I want ... an international release and I'm out talking to labels. There are not many people making records like this ... [so my hope is] I'll find a niche thing and this will be the start of the next 10 years of my life, which is what I've been thinking about. When I was getting into my late 30s I went, 'how do I want to spend 40 to 50?' I thought 'well, I want to spend them playing around the world, making great records, playing with great musicians, extending myself, really just doing what I know how to do ..."

The Poet's Embrace, recorded on old-style analogue equipment, was made in just two days but was two years and a month in Provence in the creation.

"I've been gigging professionally since I was 15 ... it's sort of inbuilt to just work all the time and play all the time. So for the first time in my life since I was younger than a teenager, I had a whole month with nothing to do. So I made sure that I took this with me ..." Haines points to a ominously thick, suspiciously highbrow-looking pile of A4 sheets on his dinner table.

"It's ... Nicholas Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, which he wrote in the 1940s. Basically it sold nothing and all of a sudden in about 1953 the sales started taking off because jazz musicians got hold of it, particularly John Coltrane, and they came up with this sort of new melodic language, which is 'post-bebop'."

The book is at the heart of his new thinking, and his new album. Well it was once he'd got his head around what it had to say - while, ahem, on his honeymoon.

"So we're in this tiny village [in Provence] and there was a post office, a cafe, two butchers and a little shop; that was it, there was nothing in this village. My wife would go for walks and sunbathe and all that sort of stuff and I'd lock myself in a room with [Slonimsky] and my saxophone, but I managed to break through to the other side. Then I ended up breaking my foot ..."

Jazz isn't for stupid people. It is complex music made by complex people. It's esoteric, somewhat academic and demands to be taken seriously.

Indeed as one famous jazzman, Dizzy Gillespie, is said to have said: "Men have died for this music. You can't get more serious than that."

Well not really. But there's more to it than serious men. There's the "loose women and the free booze", as Haines drolly puts it. And there's the undeniable cool.

And this strange and very-far-from-mainstream music - if not the booze and floozies - got him at an early age, in the synth-obsessed 80s, because jazz was what mattered in the Haines household, the music came second only to God.

His father Kevin, a jazz bassist, eked out a living as a full-time musician during Haines' childhood. Money was tight, Haines junior once told Metro magazine, but there was always enough for Saturday morning music lessons for him and his brother Joel, now a guitarist and music producer.

As early as 12 or 13, young Nathan began playing saxophone with his father's band at the London Bar on Queen St. "I was thrilled to be 'one of the guys' but I wasn't always included," Haines said later. "I always wondered why the rest of the band slipped away on breaks and returned noticeably happier."

It was around this time that he was awarded most outstanding young jazz musician at the Tauranga Jazz Festival, the first wave in what became a flood of early recognition.

By 16 he was playing with Joel and others as The Jazz Committee in bars around Auckland. I remember seeing them, looking like sulky young lounge lizards, at the long-gone Globe tavern in the mid-80s. By 19, having won an AGC Young Achievers scholarship, Haines was studying jazz in New York.

"The other part about my life is that I was brought up as a Jehovah's Witness, so I had a very strict religious upbringing. My parents are still Jehovah's Witnesses and I have a great relationship with them. It was a huge thing to leave home [at that age. But] I had to leave home."

He made his first recordings at 22. The resulting album - a jazz record remember - went gold and became this country's biggest-selling jazz album. The album that beat that record was his second, Squire for Hire - which was recorded in Britain, his home for a decade after 1994.

His CV since the mid-90s is dizzying. He has worked with dozens of other musicians, producers and DJs, spending much of the last 15 years making music at the intersection of jazz and dance culture and soul. He has worked with British drum 'n' bass master Goldie, Blur's Damon Albarn and veteran soul singer (and close friend) Marlena Shaw. He owned his own nightclub, Bemsah!, in London, and recorded and recorded and recorded.

The attention, he admits, went to his head. "I do look back on the person I was then. The thing is that I was playing [music] by ear - in other words I hadn't done a lot of the hard work. So I knew deep down that when people were saying, 'Nathan Haines is this great new genius', I knew that I wasn't because I hadn't done the work.

"Obviously it's a personality type when all these people are saying something, but deep down you know that isn't the case. I felt like a fraud.

Deep down, I felt like a fraud."

It wasn't until 2005, when he recorded and performed with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and worked with Grammy-winning arranger Alan Broadbent, that Haines, who had always played by ear, did what he calls "the work" and began feeling he'd earned his acclaim.

By that stage too he was five years clean after spending the late 90s with the ultimate bad habit - and jazzman cliche - a heroin addiction.

How bad was it? Very bad. He ended up living with his drug dealer in London's Camden Town (in the flat used in Withnail and I!) and, over the course of his three years using the drug, had two overdoses. "I actually shouldn't be here, I died twice and was resuscitated by medics twice. Into the first year I wasn't addicted but I was still really using a lot and then you go through the addiction phase. But then after that, very soon after [I gave up heroin cold turkey after three days of hell], I made the album Sound Travels and then my life was just ... that was it, all of a sudden I was playing all over the world; my records were everywhere. I was like the new thing. Luckily I'd gone through that period of addiction [in 1999] and I became a lot stronger because of it. It is a very strong drug and it was a big thing for me to live through ..."

Clean and busy he might have been, but he spent the early 2000s working himself to the bone and came home permanently in 2006 to recover. "I had to leave London when I left, because that was it, I was at the end of my tether, I guess you could say, physically, emotionally; everything. So New Zealand has been a wonderful, wonderful salve for me."

And now he's leaving us again. New Zealand has worked its magic on his body and mind over the last six years, but not so much on his ability to play regularly at the likes of Ronnie Scott's. He's certainly made a living here, but by teaching jazz part-time at the University of Auckland, by DJing and by playing his own music at weddings, parties, anything.

"It really is difficult and there have been some difficult times for me in this country, there's been bad reviews and stuff. For instance, I did a tour two years ago and I lost an incredible amount of money, my own personal money. I lost $15,000 because some of the shows were well attended and at some of them there were 20 people. I got really depressed and I had to go back to Europe and make more money touring over there and playing for other people and brought the money back to New Zealand. That was really, really difficult and I just felt incredibly hemmed-in and very stuck here ..."

But no longer. He and Webster will move, via a couple of months in Hong Kong and China, to London in early August.

"I feel it's very important to keep the international thing happening. When I first moved back [to New Zealand] I thought, naively, that it was possible to do both. I still get booked to play a lot of international gigs, but there's nothing actually to replace being over there. It's being around and it's being available ... I could be playing Ronnie Scott's with Marlena five nights this week. I was asked to do it and I was like, 'I can't do it, because I've got my other gigs here'. So there you go, I'd be playing at Ronnie Scott's, I'm sure, if I was there. [So going back to London] is a good opportunity to set up something, to go back into this niche thing, to help start the resurgence of jazz maybe ..."

Maybe. In any case we should wish him luck - but let's not tell him to "break a leg".

Nathan Haines is playing at the Waiheke Jazz Festival on April 6. The Poet's Embrace is in stores now.

- NZ Herald

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