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Steve Haines -The Power of Propulsion

The first thing you need to know about Steve Haines is that the man knows how to swing. Both in his writing and his playing, the bassist and bandleader is a hurricane of forward motion, pushing his band into upper atmosphere, and lucky for us all, they deliver. On his new disc Stickadiboom, Haines’ working combo is joined by living legend Jimmy Cobb on drums, he of the long tenure with Miles Davis, and the sole surviving musician who played on Kind of Blue. Rob Smith plays trumpet and soprano sax, Chip Crawford is on piano, David Lown is on tenor, and Haines’ regular drummer Thomas Taylor plays on two cuts.

Even though the mere mention of Cobb’s name might imply that Stickadiboom is structured as a long drum solo, the truth is that its really an ensemble exploration, with each member delivering incredibly strong performances, warmly recorded and utterly sympathetic with each other. The feel, as has been noted elsewhere (although you don’t need anyone to clue you into it, when you hear it), is reminiscent of 60s Blue Note hard bop dates, when Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley and Sonny Clark or Wynton Kelly, Cobb’s old bandmate, were tearing the roof off. Indeed, throughout the album, you can easily point out highlights delivered by each band member, whether it’s Crawford’s teetering-on-the-edge piano on "the Freightrain," Cobb’s melodic solo on the title track, Smith’s heartfelt musings in "Rendezvous," and on.

It should be mentioned here that despite its classic feel, all of the tunes are originals by Haines, with Cobb contributing his own "Composition 101." Which is to say that being rooted in jazz history doesn’t mean you have to be nostalgic. Swing, rather than nostalgia, is what fuels Steve Haines. And he can put his ideas into action as a teacher as well as a performer: Haines chairs the Miles Davis Jazz Studies program at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where he teaches his students about how to love jazz and how to look beyond technique into making real music.

Jazzreview: Do you find that being close to teaching makes you think in terms of technique?

Steve Haines: No, in fact, jazz education has become a bit of a nerd fest. I absolutely believe it’s a real problem with teaching composition and improvisation. Jazz education has become a scale, or a scale that fits a chord. A lot of times, orchestration and arranging usurp the melody or rhythm, and as a result we get people that have no authenticity when they play! They don’t play with any melodic conception. A great example would be the blues scale. The blues scale is jive if you ask me, because you can make any scale sound like the blues! So at our school, anything we teach is always from the point of view of the music. In our arranging class, it’s mostly by transcribing, by listening to bands. The biggest thing I like to tell my students is to be exposed to as much music as you possibly can, and listening deeply and carefully is the best thing you can do to help your arranging and orchestration chops.

Then when I need to compose, I just turn all that stuff off and just try to sing. There’s technique, but academics have made that become the inspiration for music. I remember talking to Byron Strickland about it, and he was taught that on D minor seven he should play D Dorian and when he hit G seven to play G mixolydian, and then C major to play C Ionian. The problem with that is it’s clinical, just describing it sounds like a hospital room! And all of those three things are the same seven notes! There has to be an approach that inspires listening and imagination. Melodically speaking, you just want to be able to sing! Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, they weren’t thinking about mixolydian, they were just singing. We’ve lost a lot, because we no longer think about melodies in jazz.

Jazzreview: Do you sing along with your playing?

Steve Haines: Sure! That’s why I play the bass is I’m a terrible singer. I’m trying to sing and swing. That concept of swing, that’s another thing that’s kind of been lost is that sense of forward propulsion, that sense of deep groove. I don’t know a lot of people that would say before a gig, "hey guys, let’s go up there and knock them out with weirdness!" But that’s what ends up happening a lot, and jazz musicians wonder why they have no audience anymore! Students show up to gigs with a wheelbarrow of fake books, they spend fifteen minutes between tunes yakking, they’re playing chords instead of singing with their spirits, and they’re not listening to each other. Crazy!

Jazzreview: Do you write music on the piano, or does it start with the bass?

Steve Haines: For me it starts with the melody. I generally write things down so I don’t forget them. It doesn’t have to be at the piano, it could be at the kitchen table, or in the shower.

Jazzreview: So you’re just walking down the street, and a melody pops into your head.

Steve Haines: Yeah, it could be like that! I might have to call my voice mail, which happens a lot. I have a terrible memory, so I’ll have a great melody and I’ll forget it. I have to sing it into a machine if I’m just walking around. From there, usually a melody has an implied harmony anyway, so it just pops in. Then what I might do is sit at the piano and play around with alternatives. This might be better than what I originally thought. But the piano tends to hinder it, because I’m looking for something rather than it just being there.

Jazzreview: Your record reminds me of those old Miles albums that a real sense of propulsion, a classic hard-bopping kind of vibe. How did you go about recording, and how did your regular drummer feel about getting the boot?

Steve Haines: Sure! Thanks for that. First of all, the drummer, Thomas Taylor, he was thrilled when he found out that Jimmy wanted to record with me.

Jazzreview: That’s what he told you anyway!

Steve Haines: (laughs) Maybe you’re right! No, I sort of felt, what if he had a chance to record with Ray Brown or Christian McBride or something. I would be like "man, you need to jump on that!" But I did want to keep him involved with the project, and I had him come up to New York to do a couple of tunes, because I really feel the identity of the band, and the band sound is important. All of the great jazz in history has typically been done in bands. The Miles Davis Quintet, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives, the Bill Evans Trio, the Oscar Peterson trio, the classic Coltrane quartet. There’s something to be said for history with a band. In this day and age, we’ve got a lot of jazz musicians that meet one another right before they hit in the studio, and I really wanted to have the band cohesion instead.

I was very fortunate to get a bunch of grants, so I was able to afford the Clinton Studio, it has a large room. As soon as I went in the room and spoke and put my fingers on the piano, I realized, oh this is worth it. It’s a very, very special place. The last part of the puzzle was that I needed somebody whose ears I trusted as much or more than my own, so I hired Branford’s recording engineer Rob Hunter. He’s got wonderfully developed listening skills. We were all in the room together, in a circle around the piano. You could hear the room.

As far as the compositions are concerned, I wanted to keep things really simple. It was a real challenge for me, I wanted to do things I could practically just sing to the band as opposed to writing it all out. That has a lot to do with Jimmy. We had a couple of rehearsals with him, I’m not going to give him six pages of music to play, it had to be something he could instantly get, that lays easy. I think there are benefits to that compositionally speaking too.

Jazzreview: Tell me about how you met Jimmy and convinced him to come play.

Steve Haines: Branford Marsalis was recording in Greensboro, and Jimmy was doing that, so I got a chance to hang out a little with him and his wife, and we just sort of hit it off. About a year later we had him back as a special guest at the University for the Miles Davis jazz festival. We flew in Miles’ children, we brought in some other alumni of Miles, and on that weekend I gave him my first record. Four or five months later, I gave him a call, and I heard my music in the background. He said, "Man, I really like your record." I was pretty humbled to hear that! And he said, "If you ever want to play, if you ever want to record, let me know." Of course I said, "Now, don’t you be saying that unless you mean it!" That would be really, really special! So we did it! It was a very special thing for me.

Jazzreview: I can only imagine.

Steve Haines: It was pretty great. The coolest thing for me, the call for the band on the first day was noon, I got there around ten thirty, Jimmy got there around quarter to eleven. He was playing by eleven. He just kept playing, warming up, practicing. The band showed up around eleven thirty, here’s the guys getting there, and Jimmy’s already there. That was special! The other thing was, he said, hey, let’s do this tune. We all gathered around, and he sang it to us. Oh, man, the way he sang it! I wish I had a microphone, you should have heard him! It was like nothing I had ever heard before, just him singing the melody to a tune. It was so swingin’! So amazing.

Jazzreview: Did he tell you any stories?

Steve Haines: No, we were so involved in the music we were playing. After we’d play a few takes, we’d listen really intensely to it, and one of us would say, ahh I’m not happy with that, or whatever. There were other times when we hung out and he told me stories, but during the recording we were just really focused. There was one story, when he first moved to New York from Washington, the piano player took him backstage and asked him to hold his drug paraphernalia. Then the guy rolled up his sleeve and shot himself up with heroin. The whole thing, with the snapping of the rubber tube, Jimmy just stood there with his mouth open. It was the best thing that ever happened to him, because it scared the hell of him. From that moment on, he decided he’d never do that stuff! And thank God, because he’s still playing like a freak! Every track we did, he was just so musical. It was unbelievable.

Jazzreview: Does your job at the university inhibit your ability to go out and play gigs?

Steve Haines: Actually, the opposite is true, it helps me get gigs. The university actually pushes me out the door, because they want people to go do their research, and my research is performance and composition. They have grants to help pay for travel. I’m going to New Zealand to play and make a record, this summer, I’ll be in the Czech Republic this summer, performing, and they’re gonna help pay for the travel. I miss a lot of school because of my performance schedule, but as long as I make up my lessons, they’re happy with me. It’s a great gig.

Jazzreview: Wouldn’t it be more advantageous to be based in New York?

Steve Haines: Yes, and I lived in New York for over a year just recently. I just got back in July. I loved it, I got to do a lot of playing. I played with Joe Chambers, Joel Frahm, Seamus Blake, Wycliffe Gordon. It was a great experience as far as playing. On the other hand, home is where the work is. I still frequent NYC, I’m very lucky to be able to go back and forth.

Jazzreview: What’s the connection to Miles Davis with the university?

Steve Haines: A good friend of his named Buddy Gift lives in Greensboro. Buddy helped raise Miles’ children when Miles was on the road, so he was very close to the family. He got talking to me and the person that was there before me. Eventually he donated the trumpet that Miles used on Kind of Blue to the school.

Jazzreview: Whoa!

Steve Haines: Yeah, it’s heavy! So there was a dialogue between the university and the Miles Davis estate, they were invited to the university, and some university brass went to New York and got a tour of the Columbia studios. The North Carolina board of governors passed the Miles Davis program as a name and the estate gave us permission to have exclusivity with the name in a university setting. That’s how it all started.

Jazzreview: When you took over the program, did you have to change anything? Fix anything?

Steve Haines: Oh yeah. Jazz, when I started, was considered to be secondary music. It was a very conservative school. Jazz wasn’t allowed to be performed at convocation, whereas every other music from the school was. There was a jazz major, but there were no scholarships, because it wasn’t considered worthy. There was no jazz theory class, jazz ear training. There was no jazz piano. A lot of things were just plain missing. It was like this huge, sacred name, "Miles Davis", and behind the curtain there was an empty stage. My feeling was if you have the Miles Davis name, you have to do something really special!

Jazzreview: It seems like you have quite a roster of visiting artists.

Steve Haines: Yeah! Probably the most memorable was, we did a record with Dewey Redman. Nobody had ever arranged his music for a large jazz group, and he had never performed with a big band. So when he came, all of our students took his music and arranged it for large jazz ensemble, which in itself is a huge topic. It was an amazing learning curve! Then we did a live recording of it, which is out there and available, called Live with Dewey Redman.

Man, his sound was the most breathtakingly beautiful sound I’ve ever heard on the tenor saxophone. And to hear the sound of Cecil Taylor’s piano voicings in the brass was incredible. Dewey was so wonderful, he was incredibly honored. The very first conversation I had with him, he was very aloof. I had to call him three or four times. He finally told me that he was accepting because I had never asked him to bring his son Joshua! I said, what do you mean by that, Mr. Redman? He said that a lot of people call him for gigs just so that can get him to bring his son, and it makes him feel bad because he’s been playing music for a long time. But obviously, we wanted Dewey Redman! Honestly, he was taken aback when he heard the music in rehearsal. He was overwhelmed. He must have sent me half a dozen letters after that fact, thanking us.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Steve Haines
  • Subtitle: Putting the Swing Back in Jazz
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