Jim Langabeer Remembered

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

Jim Langabeer – ‘Sketches of Aotearoa’

Jim Langaber 087 (2)A seasoned New York veteran when asked to comment on the quality of playing by young artists emerging from the Jazz Schools said, “Man they’re such great players. Many of them have chops to burn, but what is lacking is ‘character’. That is not taught in Jazz schools, you gain it inch by inch out of life experience”. To paraphrase Lester Young who put it best, ‘I hear the notes, but what is your story’. The character of a musician (or the lack of it), shows up in the music. Jim Langabeer has ‘character’ to burn. He tells wonderfully human musical stories and they are utterly beguiling.Jim Langaber 090Langabeer is hugely respected on the scene and deservedly so. He has worked with greats like Gary Peacock and Jaco Pastorius and in spite of absorbing the essence of North American Jazz, his ideas and sound possess a Kiwi authenticity. When he plays his tenor there is often a street-raw raspy intonation. The sound is at times reminiscent of Archie Shepp, but the story and flow of ideas are entirely his own. His flute playing is soulful and as soft as silk in the breeze. Because he is so comfortable in his own space he can incorporate everything from the avant-garde to indigenous music without it sounding contrived. These seamless references work beautifully in his hands. We talked of this after the gig and agreed that many of the earliest attempts at blending middle eastern, far eastern or ethnic music were less successful than now. Jim Langaber 089As the boundaries between cultures blur in a globalised world, the mutual respect between improvising traditions grows. I have posted an example of this effortless genre-blending in a clip from the CJC gig titled ‘Ananda’s Midnight Blues’. Those who are familiar with Buddhism will grasp the meaning immediately. Ananda was Gautama Buddha’s childhood friend and later his disciple. Beloved, worldly and yet never afraid to challenge his enlightened teacher. There is a feeling of deep questing spirituality in the piece – reaching beyond mere form.Jim Langaber 088 (1)Whether Langabeer plays flutes or reeds, everything serves the composition. His spare lines (which are devoid of undue ornamentation) establish a theme and then vanish like a will-o-the-wisp, giving a nudge to the imagination and enriching the piece as a whole. There are no wild flurries of notes on the saxophone or flute because the story resides elsewhere. His writing creates an over-arching logic and the ensemble has the freedom to move in and around tonality. In some pieces ostinato patterns create a drone effect, becoming a single note over which to restate the melody. This freedom allows for an organic interaction, free or inside and with a deep gut-felt pulse.Jim Langaber 088When putting a band like this together the choice of musicians is supremely important. Not every musician could handle such freedom. Needless to say, Langabeer chose well. The ensemble was rich in contrasting colour, rich in character. It was our good fortune that Jim Langabeer’s daughter Rosie Langabeer was back in town. I can’t imagine a better-qualified pianist for this role. A leading avant-gardist and experimental musician who crafts compelling filigree and rich beauty into her music. Rosie Langabeer can play outside one minute and the next you hear a deep subtle swing, a rare kind of pulse that you can feel in your bones. A gifted composer and leader in her own right, an extraordinary sides-women when required. Moving from percussive, richly dissonant voicings to heart-stopping arpeggiated runs – somewhat reminiscent of Alice Coltrane’s later piano offerings. Her iconoclastic playing delighted the audience.Jim Langaber 093On alto was Roger Manins. Although the alto is not his main horn he is extraordinarily fluent on the instrument. Langabeer has been focussing on multiphonics and microtonality of late and he and Manins showcased some atmospheric numbers utilising various blowing techniques. Manins has long impressed by playing in a variety of styles with equal facility. On guitar and pedal steel guitar was Neil Watson, bringing his mix of blues, Jazz punk, and avant-garde to the fore. Another iconoclast and one we love hearing. The pedal steel guitar has been in his possession for a year now and his rapid mastery of the instrument is impressive. A difficult beast tamed beautifully. On Bass was Eamon Edmundson-Wells. A versatile young bass player most often found in the company of experimental musicians. His performance on this gig was right on the money.Jim Langaber 091On drums and percussion was Chris O’Connor. Perhaps more than anyone else O’Connor personifies this free-ranging music. Of all the New Zealand drummers, his are the widest-ranging skills. Colourist, minimalist, indie rocker, straight-ahead jazz, avant-garde, experimental percussion and film work. There is nothing he won’t tackle and everything he touches benefits from his musicianship. When a piece titled ‘Tapu’ was played O’Connor stole the show. While Langabeer played the difficult and wonderfully atmospheric Putorino (a traditional Maori flute of the Taonga Puoro family), O’Connor simulated the Tawhirimatea (A traditional whirring instrument dedicated to the god of winds). The effect was eerie and electrical. Later in the piece he blew through the stem of his snare stand – recreating the effects of the Pututara (a conch trumpet). Only O,Conner could have pulled this off so well. Like Langabeer, he has a deep awareness of multicultural issues.Jim Langaber 092The one standard was Strobe Road (Sonny Rollins). A lesser known standard and played with enthusiasm. The remainder was a selection of Langabeer tunes, many referencing Maori of Kiwi themes. His tune Rata Flower was a stunner – it deserves to become a local standard. He has obtained funding from Creative New Zealand for this project and we might see a ‘Sketches of Aotearoa’ album soon. I truly hope this occurs and I will be the first to purchase one.

Sketches of Aotearoa: Jim Langabeer (flutes, Taonga Puoro, tenor saxophone, compositions), Rosie Langabeer (piano, keys), Roger Manins (alto saxophone), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, steel guitar), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion). Performed at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand – 20th April 2016.Jim Langaber 094

NOiCE @ CJC

Rosie Langabere

The North Island Creative Ensemble is a project dear to Rosie Langabeer’s heart and one of many projects that she has on the go.   Rosie has been out of New Zealand for some time although NOiCE did perform at the CJC over a year ago.  Her musical journey most recently took her to the USA where she worked for three years with leading experimental improvisers and artists.   Her compositions and playing have won various awards and so I made certain that I there as I missed the last NOiSE gig.

This is music that is hard to pin down, as it deliberately defies conventions while somehow flirting with them.   There is a sense of structure which provides a touch stone, but don’t grasp too firmly as the forms will dissolve as quickly as they appeared.  This is music which carries you forward if you let it, holding you in the eternal moment.

NOiCE is an assembly of highly creative musicians; coming from a variety of North Island towns and cities.  The music is experimental in nature and it is definitely adventurous.  Most of these musicians are well-known and leaders in the field of New Zealand experimental music.   Jim Langabeer (Rosie’s father) is a stalwart of the Auckland Jazz scene, but he has also worked with international musicians like Gary Peacock, Sammy Davis Jr and even the Bee Gees.   He is a multi reeds and winds player and because of his proficiency on a variety of instruments he has been in demand over the years.  I recently saw his name come up in the music credits of the New Zealand film ‘Mr Pip’.   His innovative flute work is probably what he best known for.

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Jeff Henderson is also a multi reeds player and he is at the very heart of Auckland’s experimental music scene.   He can often be seen at ‘Vitamin S’, a small club dedicated to experimental music located just off Karangahape Road, Auckland.   Jeff has worked with a large number of cutting edge musicians over the years, William Parker, Steve Lacey, Mike Nock and many others.   He delights in pushing against the boundaries and when he performs he seldom holds back.  While his scalding solos often reach beyond mere form, his ability to integrate seamlessly into an ensemble creates a filigree of contrasts and textures.   A delicious aura of inventive unpredictability hangs over him.  IMG_8613 - Version 2

Chris O’Connor (drums) is a firm favourite with CJC audiences.  A recipient of the Chapman Tripp Award for original music, he has also worked with the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacey, avant-garde pianist Marilyn Cryspel, Don McGlashan and numerous other well-known groups or individuals.   Chris is one of those drummers that other drummers revere and the last time we saw him at the CJC was with vibist John Bell.

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Ben McNicoll (reeds and winds), Joe Callwood (guitar), Gerard Crewdson (brass) and Kingsley Melhuish (brass), Nicky Wuts (vibes) and Patrick Bleakley (bass) round out the ensemble.   They are all experienced musicians and most of them have worked with NOiCE for some time.  Ben McNicolls is the best known to CJC audiences as both the technical director of the club and a frequent performer.  A good reader with a nice sound he, is happy to take on any project, from standards gigs to out-ensembles.   Gerard Crewdson and Kingsley Melhuish are versatile and sought after brass players and both have played the CJC before.   The musicians that I was less familiar with were Patrick Bleakley (bass), Joe Callwood (guitar) and Nikky Wuts (Vibraphone).

I’m relieved to see another mallets player on the scene as New Zealand has very few of them.   John Bells departure earlier in the year left a yawning chasm.

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All contributed something unique as this is a truly democratic ensemble.  One where individual voices rise and then subside; emerging seamlessly into the collective consciousness of the group