Jazzing things up

Jazz pianist Duncan Haynes. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Jazz pianist Duncan Haynes. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Duncan Haynes’ sense of adventure has seen him perform all over the world. Drawn home to New Zealand, he tells  Rebecca Fox about re-establishing himself after two decades of living abroad.

Jazz pianist Duncan Haynes describes his job as equal parts fear and exhilaration.

Even after 20 years of performing with top musicians and in top venues everywhere from London and Paris to Poland to Peru, those feelings are still there when he steps on stage.

"If it didn’t [feel like that] it’d be kind of dead," he says.

Haynes returned home to New Zealand for good last year after a visit made him realise his parents were getting elderly and he had nieces and nephews he had never met.

"I’ve been away 20 years and I only came home once, so I was really away."

When Covid came along forcing him into a four-month lockdown in Paris, he had time to reassess his career and direction as well.

"I wasn’t that happy with how things were going artistically in Paris.

"After running, running, running to survive. Mentally running all the time. It forced me to stop, reflect on why I’m doing this. I felt like it was the right time to make a change, to come back to be near family and try and be the musician, artist and teacher I want to be."

So he is starting life all over again. He is living with his parents in Waikanae, on the Kapiti Coast, and enjoying the slower pace of life that comes with living so close to the beach.

"After living in big cities for 20 years, being 50m from the beach is awesome. I swim every day, it wasn’t planned, it’s just something I tried when it got warm enough ... and I haven’t stopped - it’s such a pleasure. It’s not to prove anything."

Having that connection to nature is something New Zealanders take for granted as part of their everyday lives, but is not something he has experienced living in cities such as Paris.

He is slowly making connections in the music world in New Zealand again and has been happy to find a depth of talent and range of musicians making their way here.

"I’ve been thrilled to see that. There is a big number of really talented people. I’ve been going around a whole bunch of gigs; it’s been really good."

Haynes has put together a trio with Wellington-based double bassist/composer Seth Boy and creative jazz drummer/composer and Wellington Jazz Cooperative founder Mark Lockett.

In Dunedin, they will be performing some of the music Haynes has written in recent years for the inaugural Albany St Jazz Loft concert.

"I’m really looking to playing there. The last time I was in Dunedin was 1990. I’ve got hazy memories of that, it being 30 years ago. I was a student, a visitor at the time."

Reluctant to describe his work — "it’s what swims around in my head all day" — as he says others describe it better, he relents to say it is contemporary, original jazz that is accessible.

"I want people to be part of the moment which is real improvisation. I want them to come along on the journey, get involved in a story that is happening. They can see us interacting.

"It’s not something abstract or outside of them."

In the concerts he has played since coming back, he has found that approach really works.

"People do really respond to the music and the moment."

Haynes is no stranger to big changes in life and chasing adventure, having left New Zealand to play abroad in his 20s.

First stop London, then the United States - Louisiana "in the middle of nowhere" - before following his Peruvian girlfriend to Peru.

"I couldn’t speak any Spanish when I got there. For some reason we weren’t that happy there."

Three years later, they were on the move again, this time deciding to move to Paris despite not speaking French.

"We knew no-one. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Some need for adventure or challenge, I suppose."

Those adventures allowed him many different performance experiences. One that stands out is playing at the legendary jazz club, the oldest and greatest in the United Kingdom, Ronnie Scott’s in London.

"I was really proud to play there."

There were also performances at festivals around Europe including one on the Isle of Wight featuring Florence and the Machine and the late Amy Winehouse.

"I was in good company. Not the same number of people in the audience."

He also still has a soft spot for New Zealand musician Bic Runga, with whom he worked before leaving New Zealand. His string arrangements adorn her multi-platinum selling pop albums Drive (1997) and Beautiful Collision (2002).

"She’s a lovely person."

OVER the years, there have also been "odd little gigs here and there" across Europe that stand out.

"Particular musical moments where everything happened, which you can’t manufacture. All you can do is try to prepare yourself, the group and go into it with the right spirit. Sometimes things just take off."

He has had a couple of gigs in New Zealand that had been like that, including a Directions in Jazz gig at Paekakariki.

"It was a full house and we got a standing ovation unbidden at the end. There was this great energy and response from the crowd. It was really inspiring."

Another was a similar performance at the Jazz Festival.

"Again, it just caught fire. It’s hard to put it down on paper. It was just a moment where everyone in the room was, yeah. It’s the only reason you do it. You’d never be a musician, be self-employed otherwise."

He got hooked on jazz after starting out as a classical pianist "doing his grades like a good boy".

But after finding some sheet music for Duke Wellington tunes, he started to play.

"I was playing it straight, not even swinging it. But then I did by mistake and liked it."

Then he started playing trombone for the school band and buying jazz records.

"It was a combination of liking the music and eventually they started to bleed together."

Working in a music store in Auckland, he got asked by a bass player to attend an audition to play at a local bar, a gig they got and kept for months.

"I learnt a lot on the job from playing."

That led to him discovering jazz education and getting his bachelor of music degree in jazz performance at Massey University and becoming a professional musician.

"I got really into it. I love jazz, the freedom in the moment and the real-life storytelling."

He has not limited himself to just jazz, however, playing pop, rock and Latin American when he was in South America.

"I’ve basically said yes and then learnt on the job."

So coming back to New Zealand is like starting a new phase, he says.

"It’s working out well. I’m making new connections and building a reputation."

What he is most looking forward to for this coming tour, which includes gigs in Picton, Christchurch and Nelson, is reconnecting with places around the South Island he has not been to in decades.

"It is great we get to do multiple concerts but we also get to see people, see the landscapes. So it’ll be nice to reconnect with more of New Zealand."

His performance in Dunedin will be the first for the new Albany St Loft, a venture being started by the Dunedin Jazz, Cabaret and Performing Arts Trust.

The trust aims to bring innovative contemporary jazz to Dunedin and present performances in intimate settings as well as supporting artists and a more robust touring circuit to Dunedin.

Trust spokeswoman Karin Reid says the hope is to curate an intriguing programme of artists and actively promote the idea of "crossover" with other musical scenes beyond the core "jazz scene" in Dunedin.


The Duncan Haynes Trio
Albany Street Jazz Loft, upstairs at the Playhouse Theatre
Friday, July 23
6pm for 7pm start

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