Twenty-five years ago, Nathan Haines released Shift Left, New Zealand’s biggest selling jazz album of all time. On the eve of its anniversary reissue, Graham Reid takes a look at the album’s genesis and impact.
This piece has been republished with permission from Audioculture.
In 1994 Nathan Haines released his debut album Shift Left, an album which revealed a fault-line between the previous generation of New Zealand jazz players and – because of its use of turntables and rappers – a new generation which had embraced hip-hop as much as the cool sounds of the 50s and 60s.
Shift Left – the title chosen from a roadworks sign which appealed to Haines’ left-leaning attitude – remains New Zealand’s biggest-selling jazz album. Yet, a year later ,when it was awarded Jazz Album of the Year, Haines wasn’t interested in the accolade or the album anymore. He was only 22 when he recorded it and had, he said, “moved on into electronic music and found the album dated.”
But Shift Left remains a benchmark in Haines’s career; in April 2019 the album was remastered and expanded for a 25th anniversary reissue. But there had been plenty of work before it … and there has much more, and more musical diversity, since.
Nathan Haines, born in 1972, and his younger, guitar-playing brother Joel grew up with jazz in their suburban home on Auckland’s sprawling North Shore. Their father Kevin Haines is an accomplished acoustic bass player and so classic jazz – Coltrane, Davis, Rollins and others – was a natural part of their upbringing, as was performing.
While still at school the boys joined their father to play as Second Generation and that brought them further into contact with local players such as saxophonist Brian Smith, trumpeter George Chisholm, drummer Tony Hopkins and many others.
By the mid 1980s the barely teenage Haines – who had been in the North Shore Youth Orchestra – was already making a name for himself at Pat Shaw’s famous Cotton Club concerts (with Second Generation) and at the Tauranga National Jazz Festivals where, in 1985 aged 13 he won Most Outstanding Young Jazz Musician and, in 1989, he was awarded Sony Young Jazz Musician of the Year.
Other accolades would follow, notably an AGC Young Achiever Award which took him to New York in 1991 where he studied with saxophonist George Coleman and Joe Lovano and was inspired by the emerging hip-hop culture and the acid-jazz scene. He was moving on fast and into new areas of expression but had a grounding in the classic jazz he would return to much later.
Recently Haines recalled how he learned on the bandstand at the famous but now-closed London Bar in Auckland. On the corner of Queen and Wellesley Street, it was a centrally located magnet for local players and many international musicians passing through.
“We were driving past it the other day,” he remembered, “and I said to my wife, ‘I learned how to play jazz there with Tommy Adderley, my dad, Tony Hopkins, Murray McNabb, Frank Conway and Kevin [Field].”
His creative and career breakthrough came with the groups Jazz Committee and Freebass – which included brother Joel – and their appearances at the Cause Celebre club on Auckland’s High St, run by entrepreneur Simon Grigg and Tom Sampson.
Freebass had been pulling large and appreciative audiences to Cause Celebre before Haines went overseas and on his return in 1992 he was approached with the idea of putting together a new band for a residency there. The timing was perfect when international jazz artists like Miles Davis, Guru and Buckshot Lefonque were bringing street funk and DJ culture into the genre.
In his 2015 book How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the Song That Stormed the World, Grigg – who launched his Huh! label with Haines’s Shift Left – said, “Nathan and his band were mesmerising; they provided a live experience the like of which I have not seen before or since in Auckland. When they played, often on both Friday and Saturday nights, we would almost always have queues down the street. It was common for them to play until five in the morning or later, holding the crowd until the climatic end. Sweat poured down the walls and mixed with thick cigarette smoke; the atmosphere was everything a jazz club was supposed to be and more.”
Touring British DJ and tastemaker Gilles Peterson caught Haines live and was keen to release a Haines album on his hip Talking Loud label. A meeting was held with new label Huh!, distributed by PolyGram, and Haines was signed for what would become Shift Left.
What also separated Haines and his band from others at home and abroad was, said Grigg, “the way they fused hip-hop and Urban Pasifika with experimental jazz.”
Shift Left – initially recorded by Steve Garden at Revolver then produced by Alan Jansson, James Pinker and Haines – bridged genres. Turntablist Manuel Bundy, vocalist/rappers Pauly Fuemana (two years before his global hit ‘How Bizarre’ as OMC), Sonny Sagala (aka Sani Sagala/Dei Hamo) and Hame were alongside Haines and brother Joel, drummer Mickey Ututaonga, keyboard player Kevin Field, percussionist Miguel Fuentes, bassist Richard Hammond and others.
The album captured the moment: “[It] was a real bombshell for me,” says DJ Sir-Vere (Phil Bell). “When I heard Manuel’s cuts and Sani’s smooth lyrics over a sublime bed of hip-hop infused jazz on ‘Lady J’ … I had to discover more.”
The success of Shift Left became a springboard for Haines who quickly moved into other live and recording projects. He relocated to London where he performed with DJs Roy the Roach and Paul Trouble Anderson, however his local profile remained high.
In 1996 Huh! released the Soundkilla Sessions Vol.1, a collection of New Zealand live and live-in-the-studio recordings including work with the Cause Celebre band; the following year he played in Fuemana’s touring OMC band for nine months.
In London he started what would become a four-year residency in the Notting Hill Arts Club where he played live and as a DJ. He recorded for Goldie’s Metalheadz label as Sci-Clone, a collaboration with drum’n’bass producer Jason Cambridge.
The recordings under his own name kept coming too: in 2000 there was Sound Travels with producer/co-writer Phil Asher for the UK label Chilli Funk (and Huh!) with a variety of vocalists (including Vanessa Freeman with whom he would work regularly) and keyboard player Mike Patto who would become a key figure in his career.
The album also sprung the single ‘Earth Is The Place’ which became a global club hit, with a US remix by the legendary French-born New York-based producer François K.
But it was the next Chilli Funk release, Squire for Hire (2003), which really took off.
Featuring legendary vocalist Marlena Shaw on the title track (a paean to Haines), the album also had string and horn arrangements by Haines, plus contributions from Freeman, Patto, his father Kevin, old friend and Auckland clubland rival Mark de Clive-Lowe on keyboards and others. It was an album which brought together his past and present and went gold in New Zealand. It appeared in an expanded edition with remixes by Ashley Beedle and Restless Soul (Asher) and the title track became a club staple.
Ever restless and perhaps feeling the pressure of his high profile and emotionally stressful existence in London, Haines took a shift right and in 2005 toured back home with a jazz group (brother Joel, father Kevin, drummer Ron Samsom and pianist Field) and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in a programme of material by Bacharach-David, Jacques Brel, John Coltrane, Cole Porter and Patrice Rushen. alongside original material by himself and also Joel. The arrangements came from Grammy-winning expat composer and jazz pianist Alan Broadbent, Carl Doy and Victoria Kelly. The tour was immensely popular and the subsequent live album Life Time – produced by the Haines brothers – was released through EMI.
His clubland side however was serviced by a compilation album with a disc of remixes (Beedle, Kenny Dope and others among them) which appeared as The Chilli Funk Years in 2006, when he also toured with Marlena Shaw and the NZSO.
It was a measure of not just how far Haines had travelled but how high he had flown when in 2007 the album Right Now – co-produced with New Zealand dance producer/DJ Chris Cox (aka Frank Booker) – appeared on his own Haven Music label and was later released on the UK indie label Freestyle in 2009. The album again featured vocalists Freeman and Shaw, and also New Zealand singer Tama Waipara.
The following year Haines joined Shaw on stage for her three-night stand at Ronnie Scott’s in London, the famed venue where he has appeared many times in recent years.
An interesting digression around this time was the 2008 album credited to Nathan Haines and Friends, Music for Cocktail Lovers which appeared on the more MOR label Thom Music. Haines’s album – recorded over a month in Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studio with brother Joel, Field, bassist Olivier Holland and others – was a classy, if low key affair, which met the Thom remit but also offered more musical interest than many might have expected.
“I loved some of the longer pieces,” said Haines at the time, “but I was also aware I was making a different sort of record. I could use the word ‘compromise’, but I don’t think it was that at all, it was just my awareness that I was doing something for Murray and putting my name to it as a producer.”
In 2010 Haines released Heaven And Earth (on Haven with distribution by Warners) with vocalists Freeman and Kevin Mark Trail on one song each, but the album failed to connect with an audience and it seemed time for a re-think.
His next album The Poet’s Embrace appeared two years later and took him right back to his acoustic jazz roots in a direct-to-stereo analogue recording,with pianist Field on a Steinway, drummer Alain Koetsier and bassist Thomas Botting. It was recorded at York Street in Auckland and produced by Patto.
In some ways Haines had had come full circle to a time before Shift Left. It was an exceptional and timeless album, and he was rewarded when it not only found an audience, but picked up Jazz Album of the Year at the New Zealand Music Awards.
It was also the result of him going back to school as it were, learning properly what he knew intuitively. “When I was young and made records like Shift Left I had a knowledge of music but relied on my ear for a lot of stuff. It was great because it helped me make records which were more about feeling than going to university and studying.
“Then I got to a certain point where I had to grapple with music. I started lecturing at university and I had these people in their early 20s and we’d be playing through those Jamie Aebersold charts, pieces like ‘All The Things You Are’ or something, and they’d go, ‘What were you doing there?’
His follow-up in 2013, Vermillion Skies – with a cover photo by Adrian Malloch that deliberately evoked classic Blue Note album sleeves of the late 50s/early 60s – found him again in York Street with producer Patto, but with a larger ensemble which included longtime supporters Field, brother Joel, Ututaonga from Cause Celebre days and a horn section arranged by Wayne Senior.
“I wanted a [Miles Davis] Birth of the Cool sound for the brass section,” said Haines.
Haines was very much on a roll and two years later – co-producing and co-writing with Patto, and with vocalists Freeman Trail, Waipara (as well as himself again) on vocals – he released 5 A Day, recorded in Buckinghamshire, England.
When reflecting on 5 A Day he said, “I first arrived in London in 1995 and played a gig on my very first night. I haven’t stopped since. It’s always a challenge – a great big beautiful, chaotic challenge that throws up all sorts of questions day in, day out. I’m still striving for excellence, for the unplayed phrase or the unheard chord change, or that indefinable feeling that only great music gives you.”
The soulful, jazz-into-clubland sound of the album was driven in large part by his wife Jaimie (a DJ at the toney and über-hip restaurant-cum-lounge The Chiltern Firehouse) who wanted something she could play when DJing.
It was not an easy album to make, as he conceded in an interview at the time. “We were running up against deadlines and it took a massive toll on our lives. I had to stop working because there were a lot of man hours in there. You read about your heroes’ records – like Steely Dan’s Gaucho where they imploded at the end – and we didn’t want that to happen.”
On paper it may seem Haines’ career has been a constant upward trajectory – playing in Europe on the same bill as Chick Corea is just a footnote on an impressive CV – but he has also endured well publicised drama. He has spoken openly about his heroin use and surviving at least one OD, but in recent years his health was even more perilous.
Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017 he underwent lengthy hospitalisation, radiation treatment and protracted rehabilitation.
His life had gained a measure of personal satisfaction when he married Jaimie in 2011. Their young son Zoot – “after Zoot Sims” – got his own tribute in the track ‘Zoot Allure’ on 5 A Day, although Haines jokingly noted “the saxophone player in The Muppets was Zoot …”
independent journalism happen!Find Out More
But Haines announced he was cancer-free in early 2018 and, 25 years on from that game-changing Shift Left debut, he is performing again.
A 25th anniversary reissue of Shift Left was released on April 12th.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.