Saxophonist Elias Haslanger knows how easy it is to lose touch with truth — how walking the accepted path, in the name of ambition or approval, can pull you away from the song in your heart. True in music, as it is in life.
Haslanger is a jazz musician, a good one, well-versed in the legacy of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. He has been considered a “serious” player since his days at Austin High School in the 1980s. Consequently, Haslanger felt a certain pressure to become more cerebral, more complex, more cutting edge in order to achieve renown as a modern jazz artist.
Haslanger walked that road, reluctantly, for two decades following the release of his straight-ahead debut album, “Standards,” in 1994. He moved to New York for four years because that’s what a serious player was “supposed” to do. Then, at last, he came home — not just to Austin, but to the voice within that yearns to get really excited in song, to cut loose and swing.
“It took me awhile to realize that if the music is honest, if it’s played from the heart, if it feels good, that’s all it needs to be,” says Haslanger. Time has taught him to embrace jazz that isn’t afraid to tap its foot. It’s jazz “without an agenda,” built around “groove and melody and communication.”
At 43, Haslanger believes he’s playing the best music of his life right now. He’s formed a new quintet, recorded a self-produced album — “Church on Monday” — that brims with joy and love and the spirit of community. It’s bluesy. It’s soulful. It’s sassy. It’s rich with musical integrity. It celebrates the spirit of the collective. It tips its hat to saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and his organ-driven, “Hustlin’” jazz quintet, circa 1964.
Haslanger’s “Church on Monday” band plays every Monday night at the Gallery (a cozy, glassy room with low-slung leather sofas that feels like 1964) directly above the Continental Club. It’s not a spacious place. There’s space enough for 50, 60 people and a sense of welcome from the moment Haslanger hits the first note of benediction.
“This is not so much a modern jazz freakout session as much as it is a swinging, groove thing,” says Haslanger, who hadn’t released an album in six years before “Church on Monday.” “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” More than that: It’s one of the sweetest, sincere breezes to blow through the Austin jazz world in a long time.
Haslanger, born and raised in Austin, fronts the “Church on Monday” band on tenor saxophone. But the quintet also showcases two of the most accomplished musicians in Austin: Dr. James Polk on Hammond organ and Jake Langley on jazz guitar.
Polk, the 72-year-old godfather of the Austin jazz scene, collaborated with Ray Charles for 10 years as an organist and arranger and also served several years as his band’s musical director. Langley, 39, is a native of Canada who recently moved here from New York. He’s a longtime collaborator with Joey DeFrancesco, widely regarded as the top jazz organist on the planet.
“This band reminds me why I wanted to play music in the first place,” says Langley, adrenaline pulsing, moments after a recent show. “It’s about really listening to each other, interacting with each other, and involving the audience. It’s about taking chances. It’s about respecting the music. And it’s about becoming a servant to the music. And because we all respect each other, we’re interested in making a band sound, as opposed to individuals doing their own thing. It’s fun. It feels like dancing. It’s like dancing with different partners.”
Clearly, “Church on Monday” is more than the title of a CD or weekly musical gathering to these players. It’s an acknowledgment of shared values. It’s the communal well. And as Haslanger might tell you: It’s about coming home to what you know.
Austin and the Groove
Growing up in Austin, Elias Haslanger drew from a wide range of musical influences. The ethos of the Armadillo Headquarters — no labels, no boundaries, no limitations — was second nature to him. Sure, he loved Bird and ‘Trane as a teenager. But he was charmed by the eclectic nature of Austn’s live music scene.
“My dad would take me around. We would see Beto y Los Fairlanes, Tomas Ramirez, a bunch of local guys,” says Haslanger, referencing musicians who had jazz tendencies but weren’t strictly jazz players. “I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan quite a bit. I would go down to Antone’s. If you were a minor, they’d put a big ‘X’ on your hand and say, ‘Go inside, have fun.’
“I was kind of a blues guy. I grew up listening to blues guitar, like a lot of people did around here. It was a special time in Austin, I think, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, because it was a very small town but there was a lot of music going on.”
Both as a teenager and a University of Texas music student, Haslanger’s tastes were heavily influenced by KUT-FM jazz programming: Jay Trachtenberg’s midnight show, Paul Ray’s Jazz, and Twine Time. He sought out local jazz players like James Polk (and his JAMAD quintet), who became a mentor and played taut, stylish piano lines on Haslanger’s first album.
Polk’s career in live music began 60 years ago — when, at age 12, he played blues piano for a band in a Corpus Christi dive called the Green Frog Lounge. He remembers the lead singer, a woman named Skookie, got into a fight on stage with the saxophone player during the first set. “She called him ‘a skinny-legged goon,’” says Polk, laughing. “After all these years, I still remember that.”
At intermission, the bandleader offered Polk a shot of Old Crow whiskey, as to break him in to the music world. The boy politely declined.
When Polk moved to Austin to attend Huston-Tillotson College in 1959, his life in music got a little better. During the 1960s, he led the house rhythm-and-blues band at an East Austin hot spot called the Hideaway Lounge, shared a bill with Miles Davis at George Wein’s Longhorn Jazz Festival, began a lifelong musical friendship with legendary saxophonist Hank Crawford, accepted an invitation to play bass, in Europe, with jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.
In the early 1970s, Polk fronted Austin multi-racial touring bands that featured late Austin trumpet master Martin Banks, guitarist W.C. Clark, vocalist Angela Strehli and guitarist John X Reed. He had a guest appearance with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He guested in the Count Basie band. He mentored Austin’s Roscoe Beck and his talented jazz band, Passenger, which went to work with Leonard Cohen.
Polk left Austin for Los Angeles in 1978 to join forces with Ray Charles — working as an arranger, playing organ behind Ray in the touring band, collaborating with Charles in the studio for the next 10 years. “In all the years I played music with him, there was only one thing Ray Charles couldn’t do — and that was see,” says Polk, deeply respectful. “But the man could do everything else.”
Through the years, Polk has mastered dozens of instruments — piano, organ, saxophone, trombone, bass, drums, trumpet and euphonium. Polk’s first instrument was violin; his primary instrument at Huston-Tillotson was cello. And for the most part: He’s self-taught.
“I’ve never had a piano lesson, still, to this day … except maybe two, from the piano teacher at Huston-Tillotson,” says Polk, a jolly, smoky-voiced man, his kind face framed by strikingly white whiskers. “But when I got to the piano lesson, she’d ask me, ‘Show me that a chord you play on “Stella By Starlight.”’ I said, ‘Wait a second. You’re the one who’s supposed to be teaching me!’”
Haslanger and Polk hadn’t worked together in 17, 18 years when the saxophonist invited him to join the “Church on Monday” sessions — but it felt so right, in line with the theme of “coming home.” As it turns out, Polk’s clean, spacious organ lines, his prevailing wisdom, set the tone of the entire project. There’s no clutter in his playing, no sense of being in a hurry.
“I learned that from (the late saxophonist) David (Fathead) Newman,” says Polk, who met Newman in the early ’60s and played with him in the Ray Charles band. “He’s not a John Coltrane. But whatever he plays is very clear and precise.
“Miles Davis was the shining example of that. His solos were so spaced — it’s like he reached up and picked certain notes out of the air.” And here, Polk raises his hands, lightly tapping thumbs against forefingers, like the pincers of a jazz crab snagging imaginary notes. “It made such melodic sense. … A lot of musicians think it’s about playing fast notes. But Fathead Newman taught me you don’t have to show off your dexterity to be a good musician.”
Throughout the recording of “Church on Monday,” Polka’s mantra to the quintet — which includes drummer Scott Laningham and bassist Daniel Durham — was “Don’t forsake the groove.” The tracks were actually recorded in just two days inside an old East Austin church that had been converted into a recording studio. “The most important thing to him is swing. He’s always, always, always in the pocket,” says Haslanger. “And the second thing he says is that you can’t let a set go by without playing the blues.”
Haslanger sees in Polk an artist who defies labels. Gospel, soul, blues, jazz, R&B all fit into his music bag. Haslanger sees it as a distinctly Austin trait, applicable to 8 ½ Souvenirs, or Alejandro Escovedo, or Grupo Fantasma as well. He feels a sense of validation when he hears Polk talk about the power of the groove, the value of having fun in music.
“I heard a lot of incredible music in New York,” says Haslanger. “But what I hear a lot of times from up-and-coming players is, I guess, a lack of appetite to really tap your toe. It’s more of an intellectual exercise. I’d rather tap my toe. I’d rather let the groove wash over me.
“I don’t know if it’s a matter of maturity, or just a willingness to say, ‘I’m gonna play this way.’ But I’ve come to the point that if it feels good, I’ve done my job. I couldn’t be happier right now, living here, doing music here. It’s right for me.”
On the last Monday night in November, Elias Haslanger and his band arrive at church early, talking music, swapping stories about lost clubs and the jazz ghosts of New York. Their hats suggest a wide array of interests, tastes, moods.
Haslanger, lean as a marathon runner, hair cropped short, a splash of gray in his goatee, wears a small-brimmed felt fedora. Polk — casual, bearlike, every bit himself — comes in a T-shirt and black ball cap as he taps away at the organ keys and lets the instrument grow warm. Langley, shirttail out, wears a black, broad-brimmed cowboy hat that covers wild strands of reddish-blond hair as he plugs in a vintage Gibson ES-5, the epitome of six-string style.
“You know what I love about jazz?” Haslanger likes to say. “In any one song, you can have a full range of emotions and feeling. Joy. Sorrow. Humor. Sophistication. Elegance. Blues. All of it comes out. … That’s not to say other music doesn’t have it. … But it’s the kind of music that captures so immediately these different ranges, right? In the tempos. Whether it’s soft or loud. In the changes. And it all goes together into this real immediate music. It’s pretty impactful when it’s all done right.”
On stage, Haslanger leads the band through an organ-drenched set list that showcases ballads, blues, bop, swing, and standards. He’s more cheerleader than cool jazz cat — often turning to face the band directly during individual solos, clapping in time, leading them on. The audience picks up on the intimacy, joining the band in the spirit of listening.
As a soloist, Haslanger plays with a strikingly physical style, dipping his right shoulder, crunching a bit as he leans left, as if trying to scoop the very soul out of the air with the bell of his saxophone. His tone and his lines are rich with soul and melancholy and laughter.
“He goes after it without reservation, man. He goes after it,” says Polk, laughing respectfully. “He’s consumed in what he’s playing. That represents the truth in what a musician is doing, represents a truth in what he’s playing. It means that much to him.
“I often say to him, ‘Elias, you have to stop playing so hard, man. I worry about you playing so hard.’ In every song he’s playing like he’s trying to get 99.9 percent out of everything. I tell him: If you want to be able to do this when you’re as old as I am, you need to slow down.”
Haslanger hears the message. But it’s not in his nature to suppress his enthusiasm. There are times, on stage — say, as Langley blends sophisticated Wes Montgomery-style octave work with lowdown blues in the same solo-story — when Haslanger gets lost in the beauty of song.
Listening intently, he closes his eyes, cradles the saxophone in both arms through the entire solo. Then, at the end, Haslanger claps with such appreciation that he misses his own cue to re-enter the melody. And hey: No one cares. Not when it’s a matter of tapping into truth. Not in this church.