UNCG jazz maestro Steve Haines makes songwriting debut
On “What I’ve seen,” the eighth track on the new album Steve Haines and the Third Floor Orchestra, Becca Stevens sings, “God won’t give you more than you can handle/said no-one who’s been to war.” It’s a seemingly simple line that works precisely because it contradicts, with affecting plainness, the fatuous consolation it quotes.
The song, in which a woman mourns the suicide of her husband, a military veteran suffering from PTSD, and then is answered (if not comforted) by him from the grave, derives considerable power from Stevens’ soaring vocals and then their absence, with her last notes followed by Chad Eby’s masterful soprano saxophone improvisation, rising mournfully over the orchestra’s string harmonies.
But it also works because of the words, not something composer, arranger, double bassist, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program professor Steve Haines has previously been known for, at least when it comes to performance rather than pedagogy. Steve Haines and the Third Floor Orchestra, released March 29, is his fourth album, but the first to feature his lyrics. They’re also heard on the lilting love song “You,” which includes a terrific piano solo by Joey Calderazzo.
“It’s funny, what we don’t notice right in front of us,” Haines recently told me in an email. “For years, I had listened to music with words and never noticed the lyrics, because the music itself was so enchanting. At some point, I just decided to listen to the story of the lyrics first. I was blown away by the depth of beauty in lyrics that I had missed before. After all of that, I started thinking about stories in my own imagination, and I’d scribble them down. When it comes to lyrics, I’m just a baby getting started.” While he described himself as coming “late to writing, or even paying attention to, lyrics,” he added, “I’m very glad for them at this stage of my life.”
Most first-time lyricists would be lucky to have their words sung as well as Haines’ longtime friend Becca Stevens sings his. The Brooklyn-based/North Carolina-bred Stevens was named Downbeat Magazine’s Rising Star Female Vocalist in 2017, the same year she was featured on NPR Music’s “Songs We Love” for her darkly beautiful “Queen Mab,” based on Mercutio’s speech in Romeo and Juliet.
On the new album, Haines and Stevens are joined by two other very accomplished musicians. Acclaimed saxophonist Chad Eby, who like Haines teaches in UNCG’s Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program, has been called “a consummate improviser” by Jazz Times and praised by Branford Marsalis. Pianist Joey Calderazzo has served as sideman to Arturo Sandoval, Bob Mitzner, Bob Belden, Vincent Herring, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and Jerry Bergonzi, and has played extensively with Branford Marsalis, with whom he recorded the 2011 duo album Songs of Mirth and Melody. Haines, Stevens, Eby and Calderazzo are joined on the new album by a full orchestra, something which, Haines said, “harkens back to the early days of jazz when such accompaniment was commonplace.”
Along with Haines’ original songs, the album includes another two new ones by Stevens, as well as Haines’ arrangement of classics by his fellow Canadians Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot (whose “If You Could Read My Mind,” the sweetest song to ever include lyrics inspired by an Abbott and Costello movie, is a particular standout), Leonard Cohen and Kim Mitchell.
The Cohen song is “Hallelujah,” which has been covered so many times that the late great singer-songwriter once sardonically suggested a moratorium on future versions, although that was before his beautifully-broken old man’s voice triumphantly reclaimed it on his 2008 tour. I asked Haines if he’d felt any trepidation about including a song that exists in multiple versions that various partisans consider definitive.
“Becca really wanted to do that one,” he said. “It’s incredible to me. Since the original version is so powerful, as are Rufus Wainwright’s and Jeff Buckley’s, there’s really no pressure on me, as nothing can top those versions and I’m not worried about failing. I’m worried more about not trying.”
The album’s CD release concert is the Miles Davis Jazz Festival at UNCG Auditorium on Friday, April 26 at 8 p.m. It will feature Becca Stevens, Chad Eby, and the Third Floor Orchestra, as well as UNCG Jazz Ensemble I. Tickets are $12, $9 and $6, and available at www.triadstage.org.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.