By: Parke Puterbaugh, News & Record
Steve Haines is a jazz musician who plays double bass and teaches in the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program at UNCG. Despite his lifelong devotion to jazz, he has just released an album that isn’t strictly of that genre. Titled “Steve Haines and the Third Floor Orchestra,” it’s got a subtle jazz heartbeat running through it but also exhibits elements from the classical, pop and singer-songwriter realms.
Its 11 tracks run the gamut from Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” to a Chopin mazurka. There are strikingly fresh reinventions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and an old Appalachian folk song, “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies.”
On a personal level, it also contains Haines’ maiden efforts at lyric-based pieces, “You” (a love song for his family) and “What I’ve Seen” (written about a PTSD-stricken warrior).
Haines played on, orchestrated and produced the album. He’s joined by vocalist Becca Stevens, saxophonist Chad Eby, and pianist Joey Calderazzo. The Third Floor Orchestra is an assemblage of UNCG colleagues and local musicians.
Haines and company will perform Friday night at UNCG Auditorium to mark the CD’s release. The UNCG Jazz Ensemble will also perform.
Haines has made and played on a lot of jazz records, but for this project, he had a different goal in mind — one that required “threading the needle.”
He elaborates: “I wanted to do a record both I and my wife, who is not a musician, would like.”Haines’ wife is Kimberly Petersen, an organic chemist also on the UNCG faculty.
“The thing about a jazz record is it’s only going to reach a certain audience,” he says. “So the idea with this one was to make an album that anyone who really loves music could enjoy.”
“Steve Haines and the Third Floor Orchestra” is lilting and listenable. His enchanting orchestrations enfold the melodies in sonic tapestries that range from brisk and bright to stately and contemplative. The album is accessible despite its willful eclecticism and genre-straddling ambition. It is, like Haines himself, highly likable. During a recent radio interview, a Canadian host told Haines, “It’s hard to categorize the album as Celtic or jazz or folk or classical. As my mom used to say, ‘It fits into the really beautiful category.’”
“That was a huge compliment for me,” says Haines, who prefers to ignore boundaries and labels.
“I’ve never understood why people put categories on music,” says Haines, cradling a coffee mug at Tate Street Coffee House. “The reason music is so powerful in the first place is that it is beyond words.” “So if you ask what kind of music do I like, how am I supposed to answer? I don’t know of any music I don’t like.”
Haines grew up in Ottawa, Canada, where he got into jazz via a trumpet-playing high-school classmate who made him a lengthy cassette filled with tracks by jazz icons.
One day while his friend was playing, Haines picked up a double bass in the corner of the practice room and joined in. It was love at first pluck.
“I was like, ‘Holy mackerel, the sound is incredible!’” he says. “It growled at me. With the double bass, you play a note and it resonates through your whole body. It’s the most amazing thing.”
Haines earned degrees in music at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and the University of North Texas, and he was hired in 1999 to helm the newly established Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program at UNCG. Created by the UNC system board of governors and the Miles Davis estate, it was a program in name only when Haines arrived.
“It was like ‘Miles Davis’ was written on this curtain and behind the curtain was an empty stage,” he says. “Where do you start? You’ve just got to start building, so that’s what we did.”
Haines achieved a great deal in his 19 years as director of the jazz program. Just don’t ask him to toot his own horn, so to speak.
When asked what he’s accomplished, Haines is suddenly lost for words.
“Well, um, uh, I mean … I don’t know,” he stammers, exhibiting the modesty for which Canadians are renowned. Instead I pose the question to Chad Eby, his colleague in the Jazz Studies Program. Haines passed the directorship to Eby last year to allow him some more time with his young family.
“The simple truth is that Steve is the Jazz Studies Program,” Eby says. “He was in charge of hiring every single person on the faculty today.
“When Steve took over, he blazed a trail we’re still walking on: creating every class, at one point even teaching every class, making the case for new faculty,” he said. “There would be no program without him.”
These days the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program is humming right along, having achieved national recognition. Purely for love of music, Haines and Eby play a regular gig on Thursday nights at Tate Street Coffee House and have frequently participated in a fabled Monday night jam session at a local house that’s been going on for over 10 years.
“The coolest thing about the growth of the jazz program is the culture,” Haines says. “I’m proud that there’s a culture of playing.”