Jim left us in January, and the shock of his unexpected passing robbed me of the right words. In the following weeks, I mulled over my inaction, wanting to do justice to his story? Then I caught covid and more time passed. While it is usual to post an obituary within days of someone passing, I paused and reflected. And as I deliberated, I could sense his presence, knowing that he would approve of my waiting until the right words appeared. Jim’s life was a Zen koan, and you can’t rush a koan.
We had spoken on the phone a week before he died and arranged a ‘hang’ in a nearby coffee bar. It was sometimes hard to catch him on the phone, but when he picked up you could feel the warmth radiating from the handset. The conversations were slow grooves. He would speak softly, radiate peace and intersperse his comments with periods of reflective silence. Jim seldom rushed his words, and the silences felt all the more weighty for it. He spoke as he played because he understood the power of space between sounds.
I had known him for over a decade, but I wished I had known him for longer. He was a musician’s musician; the term used to describe a player of significance but one who is scandalously under-acknowledged. He had been on the Jazz scene his entire adult life and had played alongside some of the greats, but his natural habitats were in the Spiritual Jazz and avant-garde scenes. Many assume that the music of the avant-garde is strident. In Jim’s hands, the music was reflective, spiritual and embedded in indigenous culture.
He could crack open a note and let it breathe in multi-phonic splendour. He could whisper into a flute and then unexpectedly send forth a flurry of breathy overtones. He had great chops and visionary ideas, but he was not egotistical. Jim was about the music and not about himself. He was an educator and an empowerer. It was about transmission – telling the story, enjoying the moment and passing on the flame.
He had written the liner notes for one of the first American Spiritual Jazz albums incorporating his Buddhist name (Tony Scott’s ‘Music for Zen Meditation). He’d recorded with poets and acolytes and played alongside Dave Liebman and Gary Peacock. He also had a presence on many New Zealand albums but seldom as a leader. At first, I put this down to modesty, but now I think otherwise. His musical journey inclined him towards humility; he possessed that in the best sense. Gentle souls leave softer footprints.
He gave more to music than he received; to understand why you should know something else about Jim, his long involvement with Zen Buddhism. It was a particular connection that we had. Each of us had connected with Buddhism in our youth which informed our attitude towards in-the-moment music. Although I meditated then, mine was of the Beat variety of Zen, remaining a lazy ‘psychedelic’ Buddhist. Jim took his practice seriously, spending time in Zen Mountain Monastery, Mt Tremper, upper New York State.
While on that scene he performed with other spiritually engaged Jazz musicians like Gary Peacock, Chris Dahlgren and Jay Weik. And amazingly, performed with famous Beat poets like Alan Ginsberg and Anne Waldman who had an association with the centre, and together, had set up the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute. In New York, he connected with Tony Scott and Dave Liebman. Later, Jim established a New Zealand Sangha in the ZMM lineage and brought out their first teacher.
I recall messaging him when I was last in San Francisco to tell him I was seeking the forgotten Jazz Clubs, the homes of lost poets and the San Francisco Zen Centre. Names leapt across the cyber-void, Black Hawk, Kerouac, Kaufman and DiPrima. Back and forth we messaged during that week. He, tapping out fragmentary reminisces of his Dharma experiences in America and recalling some of the Jazz musicians he’d encountered (eg. Jaco Pastorius, Rashid Ali, Arthur Rhames, Gary Peacock, Dave Leibman).
I, responded with pictures of a priceless Rupa as I stood in the Zen Centre Meditation room; buying a new translation of Han Shan’s Cold Mountain poems and sending him a picture of the cover. And me, reliving Ginsberg’s visions of Moloch as I wandered the corridors of his trippy nemesis, the Sir Francis Drake hotel. Buddhist practice, poetry and improvised music are old acquaintances. It was our instinctive connection.
I would bump into Jim at gigs. And he would say, “I hoped you’d be here, I have this for you” passing over a booklet on Finnish Jazz or a CD. He would press them into my hand without explanation and carry on talking about other things. These were Zen puzzles for me to unravel. I realised what treasures they were only later.
He came to my seventieth birthday, a house party where he enjoyed the young musicians playing. He was photographed, deploying his best smile as he posed among us. On that occasion, he handed me a bag of goodies, a limited edition double album – a live concert featuring Arthur Rhames, Jaco Pastorius and Rashid Ali. Handwritten by sharpie was the cryptic inscription ‘jimjazz ⅕’ – another koan to solve. Did he record this?
Important chroniclers like Norman Meehan have written about him, but I’m sure there is more to say. His family and musician friends will create a fuller discography, preserve his charts and update his filmography. It is important. Because he was not a self-promoter, he could surprise you when he appeared in line-ups. With Indian vocalists like Sandhya Sanjana, Tom Ludvigson & Trever Reekie’s Trip to the Moon band, at the NZ Music Awards, at numerous Jazz Festivals and on movie soundtracks. And he played and contributed to daughter Rosie Langabeer’s various out-ensembles. He played the flute on the ‘Mr Pip’ soundtrack and saxophone on daughter Rosie Langabeer’s soundtrack for the indie film GODPLEX
He released at least two notable local albums as a leader, but perhaps there are more? Jim’s Africa/Aroha album with Barry Young (SUPERBREW) was released as an LP by Ode in 1984 and re-released in 2007. It has remained popular with jazz lovers. Prophetically, his composition Aroha cropped up on the hospital Spotify playlist during his last hours. The album broke fresh ground in New Zealand with its freedom-tinged Afrobeat and World Jazz influences. It is gorgeous.
Around 2016 Jim undertook a research and performance project at the Auckland University Jazz School, where he was awarded a Masters’s Degree with first-class Honours. Out of that came his finest recording Secret Islands (Rattle). After recording, Jim phoned me and asked if I would write the liner notes and I was pleased to be on board. He also used my photographs.
I am an enthusiast of avant-garde music and a fan of Jim’s approach, so it was a labour of love. Secret Islands is one of a select group of albums that tells a New Zealand Jazz story. It could not have come from anywhere else. I had heard the band play a preview of the album and loved what I heard. The recording took things to another level. It featured an all-star lineup. With Jim’s vision and Rosie and the other player’s contributions, it was sure to hit a sweet spot. Later a live performance was reprised at the Audio Foundation with Jim on flute and tenor, Jeff Henderson on drums, Rosie Langabeer on Piano, Neil Feather on an experimental instrument and Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass, with Roger Manins on Alto. It was a superb performance. I will never forget it. The Secret Islands album (clip above) featured Jim Langabeer on winds and reeds, Rosie Langabeer, piano and Fender Rhodes, Neil Watson, guitars, Eamon Edmundson-Welles, bass, Roger Manins, alto saxophone and Chris O’Connor, drums.
One last album that deserves mention is One Way Ticket – Daikajo. Released in 1995 by ‘Dharma Communications’ Zen Mountain Zen Monestry NY and produced by Jim. On it, he leads the ensemble on alto saxophone, silver flute and shakuhachi. Like most of Jim’s albums, it is Spiritual Jazz. A subgenre of improvised music that is experiencing revival worldwide.
Just before the first lockdown, I visited him at his Farm Cove home as I wanted to record an oral history. I switched on my recorder while the conversation ran for two or three hours. It often veered into the esoteric. When Ī played it back, I realised that I needed another session with a greater focus on Jim’s achievements. I can usually keep an interview on track, but in Jim’s case, words were like pebbles in a pond. A series of moments setting off ripples haiku-like.
Before I knew it the pandemic had arrived. I had lost my window of opportunity. Jim passed at the height of the second lockdown, and much as I wanted to attend his funeral, I couldn’t. I participated online and remembered him in silence, a copy of Secret Islands beside me and his tune Tangi playing softly in the other room. We loved Jim and mourn his untimely passing.
Footnote: The Rupa (Buddhist image) is an antique statue located in the San Francisco Zen Centre. It is likely the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin or Maitreya in Bodhisattva form. The video is Jim’s tune Ananda’s Midnight Blues which I filmed at CJC Jazz Club, Auckland. I have also included the clip ‘Tangi’ from Secret Islands. Lastly, I would like to fondly acknowledge Jim’s daughters, Rosie, Catherine and Celia Langabeer, and Jim’s partner Lyndsey Knight, who together, acted as fact-checkers.
JazzLocal32.com is rated one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on other sites with the author’s permission.