Saturday, January 06, 2018

NZ Jazz: Jim Langabeer - Secret Islands

Okay, so I'm running a little late.... maybe not the best start for 2018 but here it is.

The pattern of alternating between newer and older releases continued in December with Jim Langabeer's Secret Islands, released in mid-2017.
New Zealand Jazz
All 11 pieces are by Langabeer. They stand alone really well and combine make a great album with a lot of variety yet there is a unified thread running through the work making for a superb album. The choice of personnel is crucial and Langabeer made great choices and the instrumentation provides plenty of textural/color variety too. 

Jim Langabeer (tenor sax/flute/alto flute/putorino) Roger Manins (alto sax) Rosie Langabeer (piano/fender rhodes, organ) Neil Watson (guitar/pedal steel) Eamon Edmundson-Welles (b) Chris O'Connor (d)

Rosie was one of the more creative musicians during my time at music school but I haven't heard too over the past several years so her inclusion is a welcome one for me. Roger is the foil to Langabeer's stripped bare approach – reminded me a bit of the contrast between Miles and his saxophonists. It's nice to hear him on alto too.

When he was based in Wellington I regularly heard Chris O'Connor and he's one of my favourite drummers on the NZ scene. His versatile and creative playing is somewhat understated here but integral to the overall sound of the album.

Neil Watson was in some ways the surprise package (most likely due to me not really keeping tabs on his work). He combining jazz/rock/blues/country to great affect. His pedal steel playing is an important part of the sonic make-up of the album.

Eamon Edmundson-Welles was the only player I wasn't familiar with. He slots in really well. Nice arco tone. Sometimes the bass is a little muddied in the mix but when it's not it pops. He hooks up well with Chris.

I never really heard much of Jim's music but I was aware of his position as a veteran of the New Zealand jazz scene. His recordings are few and far between - the Superbrew album is on the shelf waiting for a spin but I'm not aware of others (suggestions and recommendations welcome!).
His playing is unhurried, sparse and the importance of tone as an expressive device comes through.  It's not ego driven, leader centric music. He's not dominating in any way as an individual (and often takes a backseat to proceedings) but still his conception comes through clearly.

“Bad Call” eases the listener in and is nice introduction for the things to come. The piece simmers as the collective improvisation builds.

The lounge-y “Rata Flowers” features a dreamy padding of pedal steel and mellow fender rhodes with melodic tenor floating above.

The melody of “What If” features multiphonics from the saxophones over a slinky swing feel. Rosie digs into the blues with unexpected twists and turns. Her rhythmic strength holds things together. Watson opens with staccato playing before moving onto the slide with plenty of off-kilter blues swagger (much like Rosie but with different outcomes). And Roger gets slippery on alto before the out head. For whatever reason I couldn't help but think of film noir and Neil Young's Tonight's the Night.

The collective improvisation, shifting tempos and hits of “The Big Smoke” keeps your ears primed for surprises. Provides a nice example of contrast between the saxes – Roger follows Jim's lead but with busier approach. Roger may be a more slick or conventionally virtuosic, but he is not lacking in fire or feeling.

“Tangi” is well placed following the more hectic “Big Smoke.” No one overstates their case and it's a wonderfully paced piece. The droning guitar and arco bass lay the foundation. The two saxes have a cry to their tone (with Roger drawing on some influences from India). One of the highlights of the album is the Rosie's solo piano stretch that ends the piece.

“Out Of Harm's Way” gives Chris some room to solo with backing from the rest of the band. There'a nice angular and jagged dialogue between bass and piano and plenty of exuberant saxophonic wailing as Jim and Roger ride tandem on the way home.

The Unhurried and well placed “Hinemoa and Tutanekai” makes great use of minimalism. Featuring the saxes playing octaves, multiphonics, and sustained notes. There's very subtle background tinkling (what is that... organ/guitar/bass? - great texture) with percussion eventually added to the mix. Space is a key ingredient.

Alto sax, flute, and piano improvisations are underpinned with textural drums and sparse bass lines until an explosion of distorted guitar really starts ramping things up for just a moment on “Orakei Karoako.” “Freequency” flows in from the previous piece with dense distorted guitar and rolling percussion.

Again there's some Indian allusions on “Central Plateau” with lyrical flute, drone-ish guitar and mallet percussion opening the piece. It kicks into some solid swing for Rog and Watson to blow over. Rosie's comping behind the alto solo grabbed my ear. Things settle as the flute re-enters but the piece doesn't lose urgency.

“Waiata o te Taniwha,” a lullaby-like tenor feature, seems like the perfect way to sign off.

Secret Islands made great listening during December and feel it is an album I will keep returning to. For me, the two key ingredients are fun and mystery. Highly recommended.

Final words.... more Jim Langabeer please!

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