Church on Monday guitarist Jake Langley defies genre
Monday nights upstairs in the Continental Club Gallery are remarkable. In a living room straight out of Mad Men, privy to maybe 50 people at a time, tenor saxophonist and native son Elias Haslanger leads his Church on Monday combo back to an age when cocktail lounges pulsed blues and funk with all the righteousness of gospel music.
An organ trio plus two, it orbits the man behind a set of keyboards someone managed to get up the venue's narrow staircase: Dr. James Polk. Jazz bible Downbeat describes him as "an Austin jazz icon who spent more than a decade" as Ray Charles' musical director, but five decades in service of local sounds could hardly be summed up so succinctly. The rest of the ensemble cooks atop the rhythm section of bassist Daniel Durham and drummer Scott Laningham, but Dr. Polk's mastery of the Hammond B-3 is as otherworldly as the instrument's sound.
Haslanger counts off oldies staple "More Today Than Yesterday," a move typical of the crossover organ trios of the Sixties (Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff). Think Ramsey Lewis swinging through Dobie Gray's "The 'In' Crowd." Guitarist Jake Langley comps rhythm, intense decision-making washing across his face. He looks, as one local wag puts it, less like a jazz guitarist and more like one of the Allman Brothers: lank, shoulder-length hair, trimmed chin/lip scruff, leather pimp coat.
Then he takes his solo, and all hell breaks loose. It's entirely octaves – the harmonic convergence of two tones an octave apart – but not in the linear, melodic flow of octave godfather Wes Montgomery. Langley explodes into a flurry of notes, banged out with the meat of his thumb. This isn't Wes Montgomery.
It's Eddie Van Halen.
Forty-year-old Jake Langley, a Toronto native, sees himself as "a student of guitar." Born to play in his father's country band, tutored by a jazz bassist uncle, Langley boasts an education across genres rather than simply within his chosen instrument.
"There's no more difference between Cannonball Adderley or Wes Montgomery than with Chet Atkins and Ernest Tubb," shrugs the laid-back Canadian. "American music was to be revered. There's very subtle stylistic differences between the artists I mentioned, but I was expected to know all that music. I still think I have as much respect for those musicians now as I ever did."
A five-year NYC resident before moving to Austin in 2010, he logged half a decade with organist Joey DeFrancesco, nabbed a Juno Award (Canada's Grammy) and a Canadian National Jazz award, and settled in Broadway pit orchestras from The Color Purple to Mama Mia. Even skimmed, the names on his résumé tumble forth: Jimmy McGriff, Steve Gadd, James Moody, Pee Wee Ellis, Garth Hudson, David Clayton Thomas, K.D. Lang, Willie Nelson, Roberta Flack, Rufus Wainwright. Bill Cosby, no less. As a producer, he's recorded artists ranging from Waco-born trumpeter Roy Hargrove to Pinetop Perkins' final sessions.
Bring up his Van Halen-like solo, and Langley laughs.
"Hearing those great bands as a kid, it was as intense as punk rock probably was. These guys were incredible! The Cannonball Adderley Quintet was all about that. It's a slow burn, and then ... the intensity increases. At the end, everyone is freaking out!
"I'm not trying to shred for the sake of it."
Langley's bucket list of musical summits is "nine-tenths" complete, but he regrets not checking off Etta James or Ray Charles. Polk, who ran the latter's band, worked with the cream of the crop, and places his Church on Monday bandmate "among the top."
"Jake is a very fine musician, guitarist, and person," states Polk. "A lot of musicians achieve some level of greatness through hard work. You have to do that, but there are people who are born with a lot of talent. They didn't have to work as hard as some other people in order to achieve greatness.
"Jake played professionally with Bobby 'Blue' Bland when he was 18 years old. You don't do that! You can't learn that in school! That's a certain innate talent he was born with. That makes him special."
Church leader Haslanger, speaking of the band's origins backstage at the Austin Music Awards two weeks ago when the quintet jammed with Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, discovered Langley via the local buzz mill.
"Literally everyone I ran into said, 'You've got to hear this new guy, Jake!'" remembers the career saxophonist. "So, I looked him up online, saw him on YouTube videos, and was knocked out by his playing. 'Oh, I've gotta meet this guy!'"
Wanting to make a Sixties-style organ trio record in 2012, Haslanger knew he needed both Polk and Langley. The guitarist's five years in the employ of DeFrancesco meant "Jake knew that sound," but Polk had been playing less organ and more piano when Haslanger approached his mentor. Fortunately, the would-be bandleader knew many studios around town had B-3s. All three played together for the first time when Haslanger brought Langley in to record the band's first album.
"He's got a great temperament," says the saxophonist, marveling at the chemistry that gelled not only on the ensuing Church on Monday LP (revisit "Jazz Sides," Sept. 21, 2012), but in the Continental's free weekly residency that began in October of that same year and thrives today. "He's always so supportive of all the musicians in the band. Just a really cool guy."
Church drummer Scott Laningham, who's played with a who's who of Austin guitar slingers – Mitch Watkins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson – jokes that what makes Langley special is he and his wife "have chickens."
"Jake ... has no facade," adds the beat-keeper. "He's always honest. He's honest on the stage when things aren't going well, which can get tense. But he doesn't hold grudges, either. He's a consummate professional. He cares deeply about the music. He's in a place in his life, both in his musicianship and in his personal life, where you can tell he just cherishes every gig like it's gravy. I feel the same way when I'm with him."
"Jake can play any style," says Haslanger. "He can play jazz, country, swing, blues. He's killer at all of it."
Langley, his vintage Gibson guitar, and Fender Deluxe Reverb are found most nights in bands across town, ranging from his other, more Seventies-inflected organ trio Dupree (see "Texas Platters," June 14, 2013) to Western swing revivalists Bordertown Bootleggers, country crooner Rick Trevino, and Tejano supergroup Los Texmaniacs at the behest of Flaco Jimenez. On the newly minted Church on Monday album, Live at the Gallery, Langley's full range dazzles.
"He's a guitarist's guitarist," continues Haslanger backstage at the AMAs. "He makes it look so easy and effortless, but what he's doing is quite mind-boggling. The sound is incredible. He takes a lot of care with the tone and the instrument.
"He has complete command of the instrument, no limitations. It's not forced, just very natural. He's always listening, supporting. Then when it's time for him to take a lead, he just shines."
In a town known for its guitar slingers, Jake Langley remains a secret weapon.
"My dad said [Nashville sessionista] Hank Garland was the greatest guitar player in the world," says Langley. "That's a great starting point, because he's right in between jazz and country music. I also grew up listening to all the Stax stuff, so I love soul music and Steve Cropper, B.B. King, Freddie King. I hear the subtle differences in what they do.
"Some people may listen and say, 'Well, that's night and day.' I don't hear that. I hear the same roots. I think Barney Kessel and Charlie Christian were essentially American music guitar players, not simply jazz or blues. That's what interests me. I'm a student of all of it."
Church on Monday's CD release for Live at the Gallery happens Monday, March 31, 8:30pm, where else but upstairs at the Continental Club.