‘The Poet’s Embrace’ is impressively Nathan Haines’ eighth studio album, a feat all the more remarkable when you consider that he is barely 40-years old. The all-instrumental album has itself impressed, even making it into the NZ Top 20 charts. Creative musicians are popularly talked of as being ‘on a journey’, and Haines’ own has taken him repeatedly around the globe, across numerous musical genres, under a cosmic variety of influences, through self-destructive minefields, out onto big stages and back into minute introspection. In 2012 it has led him back to the jazz recordings of the ’50s, the keeping-it-real type that involve a quality quartet simply playing and recording live to tape, no overdubs or mixing added. It will also soon take him back to London, as he tells Tim Gruar.
When I speak with Nathan Haines he’s at his Ponsonby house, his home of the last six years – complete with an upstairs home studio he’s sunk a fair bit of effort and time into. Any investment in studio equipment, both new and retro, has already paid off, with much of the initial work on his 2010 album ‘Heaven and Earth’ having been done there.
It could be said that his latest, ‘The Poet’s Embrace’, is directly linked, as it was around then that Haines started to develop a close interest in the recording process, becoming convinced that getting back to analogue – recording live and mixing to tape – was the best way forward.
Throughout our interview, there are bangs and mumbling in the background.
“I’ve got a mate here helping me fix up some equipment,” he explains. “I’m moving back to London and selling off some old synthesisers, [including] a Prophet T8, I have to send away to USA for a cassette (would you believe?) to reset the factory settings. I’ve had my Jupiters and T8s on all my records in the past – obviously, technology had moved on, but they sounded so great!”
Known for recordings and live performances that have fused his saxophone and flute with digital beats and new music sounds, from acid jazz to drum’n’bass, Haines says he’s finally moving closer to a kind of pure jazz nirvana.
“All my work is jazz-influenced, but I’ve spent a long time getting ready for this record. I found a dissertation about Coltrane’s melodic ideas linked to Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.”
Slonimsky was a Russian-born American composer, conductor, musician, music critic, lexicographer and author. Published in 1947, the work provides comprehensive coverage of melodic patterns for composition and improvisation.
“I’d known about this for years and obviously I’d been studying Coltrane’s work for a long time, too, and it wasn’t until I really got stuck into it that I got really interested. Then I broke my foot, played Ronnie Scott’s, went to the south of France (to recuperate) and so studied up, then came back home where I practised and practised. And out of this came this record.”
Another big influence he happily acknowledges was a purchase; a 1964 Selmer Mark VI tenor sax, which he bought from longtime friend Brian Smith, having been cajoled to upgrade by his longtime mate, and the album’s producer, Mike Patto.
“All these events transpired so I was able to do a jazz record. I’d worked with Alan Broadbent and NZSO on a live jazz record. I’d had a few bad reviews and I wanted to do something really worth it. This is my parting shot to New Zealand. I’m at a place now where I’m confident enough to make a record that has nothing to do with modern culture.
Credibility is important to Haines. Around his last album release he referred to previous drug abuse as a symptom of a lack of artistic confidence, and it’s taken him a long time to get the credibility he seeks from some quarters, despite past evidence of sell out shows. We chat more about the NZSO experience and about the warmth of an orchestra and the value of live recordings, especially in comparison to the world of samples and remixes. That segues into discussing his new album, ‘The Poet’s Embrace’, which proclaims loudly on the cover that it is a ‘Direct to Stereo Analog Recording’.
“It’s about four guys in the room, all playing at the same time.”
The album’s seven tracks were recorded in just two sessions and completely live, without any multi-tracking or overdubs. It seems to me the ghost of Alan Broadbent is somewhere in many of these compositions, five of which are credited to Haines, one to Roy Brooks and the last to his close collaborator Kevin Field. Haines says that Broadbent is a long time friend of both himself and his father, musician Kevin Haines, as well as pianist ç, whose fingers and keys are all over this record.
“Kevin’s a world class pianist. His melodic concept of harmony and phrasing is exceptional – a big part of this record is his sound. Also, I knew (drummer) Alain Koetsier through a record for Sony I’d got him to play on. He started with Frank Gibson very early on and has that sound. I could never have made this record without him because I can’t use a front drummer, you’ve got to use someone with that Alvin Jones-sort of bubbling, firey ’60s style. I wrote the track Universal Man with stops in there for a drum feature so people could hear what an amazing drummer Alain is, you know?
“In fact I wrote most of these songs as a vehicle for improvisation. Ancestral Dance is another, with a very short head, simple minor 7 chords into an altered chord and back again. Then I extrapolate over that, again a cycle of decending 1/3s, which Coltrane-based Giant Steps around.
His recording quartet for ‘The Poet’s Embrace’ is completed by bassist Thomas Botting, who Haines describes as “…obsessed with [Coltrane’s bass player] Jimmy Garrison.”
With recording methods so dramatically eased by technology, Haines argues that musicians have become less obsessed with recording techniques, sometimes to the detriment of the overall sound.
“I am a bit of a techno. My friend Greg Ekadec is a real boffin, he specialises in vintage equipment. A few years ago he built me a lovely valve amp for my vinyl collection and then he told me about this tape machine [an Ampex 300 ½” tape recorder]. When I came back from Europe I started researching this and discovered it was this famous recorder which was used at the Columbia 30th St. Studios, where Miles’ ‘Kind of Blue’ and Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ were made. Up until the late ’50s this was the machine to use!
“We also used lots of vintage microphones and an [ex-] EMI Neve desk, lugged in the Ampex and recorded the whole session over two days [in December last year]; a real short time, just like the early jazz records. In the ’60s they went into the studio and recorded quickly. ‘A Love Supreme’ [Coltrane, 1965] was made in four hours. Myself and Mike Patto, who produced the record, have been fanatical about the equipment used, trying to get the sound right. We were asking ourselves over the years, ‘Why do modern jazz records sound pretty awful? What is it about those old records that’s so great?’ So we went down this ‘gear-head’ path.
Overall, Haines suggests that this is not a retro record, but it is referencing those things that have not been in jazz for a long time.
“Engineers don’t automatically give you that sound! Some rock bands play with grungy and analogue sounds – most modern jazz is bright and clean – and that’s what’s been missing from jazz records. And the reason we chose to go to York Street [Studios, in Auckland] was because it’s a big room, so you can use the room for sound without any special digital processing effects.
“You can make a jazz record that has all the elements that make a record cool. When you put a song like Eboness [Roy Brooks] on, the actual sound, the room and mystery is all in there. And you need the right musicians, authentic gear from the period and the right approach to bring it all together.
Photo by Karl Pierard