2019 marks the 25th anniversary of Nathan Haines debut album Shift Left, the first New Zealand jazz album I ever bought- on cassette tape no less (teenage me couldn’t afford the CD). When I thought about doing a series of deep dives into New Zealand jazz albums for NZ Music Month, this was the one that I had to do first, not just because of the music, but because of what it meant to me and my peers.
I’d started dabbling in jazz through school stage and jazz bands at Orewa College, but despite having a go at it myself, and seeing the jazz bands from other schools at various festivals, jazz always seemed like it was music produced by ‘adults’- people like my teachers who were in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, or older. Like the Swing era bands my Dad got me listening to as a kid. It didn’t seem like jazz was really a young person’s music, despite young people playing it.
Now remember, this was pre-internet, and definitely pre-streaming music, and New Zealand’s a loooong way away everywhere. The jazz I discovered outside of home were tapes and CDs passed around my band friends, or lent to me by my teachers. My friends and I listened voraciously to the classics from the 1940s-1960s, but the so called Young Lions of the 1980s and 1990s were almost unheard of to us.
I know now that the local jazz scene was really good in the 1990s. Auckland’s High Street was the place for innovative young (in their late teens and early 20s) jazz musicians to be and to play- Andrew Dubber’s written about it on Audioculture– but for young teenagers, living far out of town, those clubs were pretty inaccessible. Especially if you were like me and looked like you were 12 when you were 16! No way was I ever going to get into any of those 20+ clubs. Even at 16 I knew that far as the clubs’ bouncers were concerned I was the image of trouble walking, so I didn’t even try (some of my male friends and peers got in, but boys don’t have the same potential for trouble as girls do in that situation). All of that means that I never heard this music live when it was happening. In fact the first time I heard any of it live was at the release party at Real Groovy last month, and I’m hoping I can make it to one of the formal anniversary gigs in August. So I really only know the High Street scene from albums that came out of the experimentation going on.
Between the experiments that New Zealand’s young lions (Mark De Clive Lowe, Jason Jones, Matt Pennman, Nathan Haines, Joel Haines, and others) were creating in places like Cause Celebre, Rakinos and Deschlers, and the influx of jazz inflected pop/rock/hip hop from groups like Supergroove and the Greg Johnson Set meant that there was a significant shift in the mainstream music scene in New Zealand in the mid-1990s. By 1994 New Zealand was ready for a young, innovative, boundary pushing jazz musician to cross over into the mainstream consciousness. That musician was Nathan Haines, and the album was Shift Left.
Shift Left was recorded by Steve Garden (now of Rattle Records) at Revolver Studios in Auckland July 1994 for the newly created Huh! label (headed by Simon Grigg) and produced and mixed by Allan Jansson, James Pinker and Haines between August and November 1994. It was a revolutionary album, crossing genres with careless abandon. While its core was jazz it also embraced hip hop, Latin, turntable DJs, and EDM (a hint of where Haines was heading).
It’s hard to capture now, but as a teenager listening to it for the first time it was a revelation, not just because of the music, but here was someone, a young person- Haines was 22 when he recorded the album- who was making jazz. Importantly this was a jazz album by a young New Zealander, which featured other young musicians. This wasn’t jazz as I was used to hearing it. It wasn’t acoustic and was not only cross genre, but used technologies that I wasn’t familiar with in a jazz context (I had yet to discover Miles Davis’s electric period or Courtney Pine, and it was 2 more years before I heard Buckshot Lefonque, though that was also released in 1994). It was fresh, new, exciting, and above all youthful. It had a wonderful dance inspired groove that made you want to move- the nightclub instead of the concert hall.
It also had a track that also had a music video, ‘Lady J’, which thanks to the wonders of Youtube can still be found:
(Thanks to Peter McLennan for the hat tip of its continued existence)
In the 1990s NZ music video landscape, while it wasn’t completely unheard of to have a jazz music video, it was more likely going to be something like Brian Smith’s Moonlight Sax or Martin Winch’s Espresso Guitar, both of which were musically way more MOR and ‘adult’ than what Haines and Co were doing. It was hip and funky, and stylistically it was way more MTV than NZ on Air. It was way more cutting edge than a lot of the hip hop/rap/turntable/jazz influenced pop acts, though perhaps Supergroove comes close.
So 25 years later, we have an anniversary reissue, which might not have happened at all since Haines is very much of the Miles Davis mould: do something and move on. Except, that Haines is of course no longer an impetuous youth, and having been through a serious brush with cancer in the past few years it has probably changed the way the thinks about his past work, and the value it had and has to the New Zealand jazz community.
I admit, until this year I hadn’t listened to Shift Left in years- I still only had it on tape, and I didn’t want to wear it out, so I’ve had a long gap between listens.
(Now I have it on tape and vinyl- just to be impractical about things…)
Before I even listened to it, there was a conversation on Twitter about reissues, and Shift Left featured prominently in that conversation, which noted that some of the tracks had been rearranged, and that the ‘Lady J (video mix)’ was no longer there. I’m still on the fence about that choice musically (and as I loooove the ‘Lady J’ video mix, I think that’s a travesty). In terms of history, I’m not so happy about that because there’s no explanation about the choices made (except for the remixes, but more about that later). Obviously as a historian, I understand that there are many ways to construct an album. However, when we’re talking about an anniversary reissue it seems to do a disservice to the fans to change it up without explaining why or the process behind the choices. It also changes the way people perceive the album- there will now be three different audiences for Shift Left those who stick to the original, those who only know the reissue, and those, like me, who have and know both versions. I have to admit, I’m really not sure what to make of that either personally or professionally. I mean, how would I go about teaching the album in a jazz history course now (presuming I ever get that chance)? I can’t think of another jazz album that has rearranged/removed tracks for an anniversary reissue, only added alternate takes and additional material (if someone out there has- please let me know in the comments).
On my first relisten I noticed that what Graham Reid says in the liner notes (which can be found on Audioculture) is true- Shift Left remains of its time, but still fresh and vibrant. There has been a little light editing done, mostly to smooth out the balances between instruments/turntables (as the liner notes say, this is mostly corrective, and probably how it should have been done in the first place), and add a bit of reverb to some of the tracks to liven them a little, but otherwise on an individual track level it’s the same as in 1994.
Shift Left is sonically and thematically situated in the mid-1990s, it fits in there with Jazz in the Present Tense, Buckshot Lefonque, acid jazz, and hip hop artists performing with jazz musicians- it’s that sound and that style of cross genre jazz that epitomises 1990s jazz to me. It remains an exciting album to listen (I swear that’s not just the nostalgia talking!) and groove to, and it remains obvious just how innovative the band was back then. This really is similar to what Branford Marsalis, Courtney Pine and the whole 1990s Acid Jazz scene was doing in New York and London- and other places a long way away from New Zealand. Sounds that were only coming through through people like Nathan who had gone to New York, experienced the scene and the cross pollinations that were going on around jazz, hip hop and EDM, and came back to spread the gospel.
Coming back to it after so many years was a little like returning home- reminding me of some of the sounds that infiltrated my teenage years, and what excited me about jazz and performing jazz. Also, as a side note, hearing Kevin Field’s youthful playing is a kick after getting to know his performing so well over the years. I swear there are some constructions he still uses today in his improvisations.
Coming back to it with a more critical ear has also made me pause occasionally and go- I can see what you were trying to do there, and I can see why you’re pushing, but it’s not quite hitting the mark. Perhaps that’s a cognitive disconnect between adult me/youthful me and the phenomenally talented, youthful (and not a little arrogant because of their talent and their youth) musicians who made this album. Not that any of the tracks have aged badly in any way- they’re all still really good- but I’m more aware now of the creases and wrinkles that more mature personalities may have worked out or worked around, or even made into assets.
The three remixes at the end of the album are another matter however. I’m not entirely convinced that they really work, and I don’t think that they add much to the reissue. It’s a nice idea, even if it overtly leans into the nostalgia of the anniversary release. I’m going to have to disagree with Reid’s assessment in the liner notes about them (specifically Dyne’s remix of ‘Ephiphany’ being daring and funky reinventions. The one I enjoyed the most was P-Money’s remix of ‘Lady J’. That I feel is a true tribute to the original ethos of the album (and P-Money is an avowed fan of the album, who, like me, was a teen when it was first released), and is definitely funky and creative, but not (in my opinion) as boundary pushing as some of his other work. Of the other remixes, Dyne’s remix of ‘Epiphany’ is in my opinion, adequate, but doesn’t capture the essence of the original, and felt safe rather than daring. And Haines’ and Frank Booker’s remix of ‘Twelve’ feels to me like a pale imitation and a too conscious reinterpretation of the original version.
Perhaps the weight of history interfered with the limits the remixers were willing to expand on. Certainly in Haines’ case I think that trying to recapture his mindset of 25 years ago interfered with remixing and reinterpreting his work. The brashness of youth is able to do things that the mature mind trying to recapture that brashness cannot. While the remixes are a fun addition, I don’t know that they really add anything musically or aesthetically to the album.
At the end of the day, Shift Left is still a fresh, exciting album. And for all the quibbles I have about the construction, it’s still one of our most important local jazz albums (up there with Dr Tree and Space Case)- all of which should be taught to our tertiary jazz students along with Miles Davis, et al. In my (ever so) humble opinion.