[22 September 2009]
Before there were the dub specialists Fat Freddy’s Drop or Patti Smith-meets-Cyndi Lauper Ladyhawke, there was Nathan Haines, who did the New Zealand music scene proud. It is therefore unfortunate that most of you reading this won’t know who Haines is even though he had independently evolved a brand of acid jazz in New Zealand at a time when dance music in the country was about as sonorous and developed as its loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen. Haines’ obscurity almost has the gravity of Giles Peterson had the latter remained largely unsung despite his achievements.
So here’s an attempted introduction. Haines, 37, is a prodigious multi-instrumentalist from Auckland who was weaned on Burt Bacharach and Thelonious Monk, thanks to a jazz-bassist father. Before he departed his teens, he went to New York to study under Miles Davis’ saxophonist, George Coleman. The episode not only helped him perfect his blues chords and arpeggios, but opened him up to a brave new world of making old-hat jazz popular for young nightclub habitués. At some point during nights jamming with DJ Smash in the basement of a café in Union Square he came with the revelation that jazz could be galvanised into four-to-the-floor dance music.
Giddily armed with this metropolitan insight, Haines returned to the antipodes and brought out Shift Left (1994) at the age of 22. The LP, with its swirling cocktail of jazz licks, turntable production and syncopated drum kicks, was considered at the time to be somewhat left field (hence its name), yet this didn’t stop it becoming New Zealand’s top-selling jazz record. In fact, it carried this distinction until Haines’ 2003 tour de force Squire For Hire nabbed it.
In the intervening years, Haines decamped to London to consort with DJs (notably Ashley Beedle), producers (notably Phil Asher), and emerging artists such as Damon Albarn and Jamiroquai (he did collaborations with both). He also met and befriended legendary jazz vocalist Marlena Shaw, who would later appear on both Squire For Hire and Right Now, Haines’ sixth and latest album. Haines returned to New Zealand in 2006.
While Shift Left was an almost freewheeling exploration intent on stretching the limits of jazz, Squire For Hire was a very marketable camp metropolitan affair that made knowing nods to the modish sounds of yesteryear. It was an effort that strung together funk, spoken word, Nat King Cole romance, and 1960s psychedelia, with Haines’ trademark quirky saxophone and flute flourishes providing the thread. It frissoned with lights-on-the-floor vigour while also provoking the listener to contemplate a rain swept London beckoning in the spring and a London where love and lust can be found. The result teased the soul and testified to Haines’ proficiency at arrangement and production.
Right Now reprises Haines’ saxophone thread and enlists the production talents of New Zealand DJ Chris Cox, American gospel singer Vanessa Williams, and New Zealand vocalist Tama Waipara. Unfortunately, talented cast notwithstanding, this album is a deflated balloon when compared to Squire, which Haines considers its prequel (he busied himself with a number of projects in the intervening years, one involving the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra).
Before going into why, you must understand that Right Now is a product of Haines crawling out of a heady decade of the drug-filled, hyper-hobnobbing existence that marks any ambitious musician. So it’s a document of his newfound peace of mind and a big sonorous sigh of relief. Unfortunately it’s all too ran-out-of-steam underwhelming when cast as a dance album. Some tracks even sound like tokens of the less-than-flattering “easy-listening” category.
All the ingredients, for instance, are present on opener “Tell me what you’re feeling” to make it a tantalising slice of funk-pop. Yet, with its latent momentum failing to ignite even with Williams’ full-bodied register, it comes off somewhat languorous.
“Home” is similarly a stolid (and maudlin) horse waiting to be whipped. It fails to find a jockey in Tama Waipara’s anaemic vocals and the odd grandiose vocal harmonic swoop.
Meanwhile, the titular track, which has Marlena Shaw reprising her role as sassy chanteuse, is an unexceptional exhortation to cease the moment. And for whatever reason, Shaw lacks the oomph and gusto of her former appearance on Squire.
Through the fog of middling dance and inadvertent easy-listening tracks does shine some headlights, though. “Creation Calling”, featuring Williams, is an animated soulful gospel number with an unexpected but fitting flute-led instrumental bridge to boot. “Talkin’ Around” opens with a chirpy brass arrangement redolent of musical vignettes accompanying scene changes in 1960s television sitcoms. It then segues into a respectfully hearty disco. And “Pick It Up” provides some urban grit to a generally lacklustre line-up with the sharp lyrical turns of rapper Ty over a skeletal bass line and intermittent brass strokes for well-calibrated colouring.
But then there is the interloping “Sign Wave”, a clear-as-Perspex indication of Haines exiting the glamour-spun dark of what’s behind the velvet curtain to find what he’d been pining for.
It’s literally gently lapping waves, chirping insects, tinkering wind charms and the meandering sounds of bamboo flute that one can imagine was designed to be played by a meditative monk on a hill. Thematically this idiosyncratic addition chimes well with tracks like “Home” and “Creation Calling” but when you have a track line-up that offers few musical surprises, something like “Sign Wave” seems as odd and unsettling as a swig of wheatgrass after a night swilling Bacardi.
In the end, all that really resonates from Right Now is Haines’ recurring brass motifs. But even here, the feeling is like being served reheated produce. No matter its quality, the produce just can’t help becoming stale. Even though the album marks the departure of Haines from a past life, it doesn’t adequately sound that change. While it sounds much like his previous work, it doesn’t measure up to any of it either.