Charley Langer sometimes refers to his debut full length independent recording Never The Same as “an art project with some very hot players” – but there’s no doubt about the Northern California based saxophonist’s mainstream potential and ability to connect with thousands of contemporary jazz fans in his home region and around the U.S. and world. Even before the album’s official release, its infectious and grooving title track received significant airplay on The Weather Channel and Smooth Jazz.com, and the video Langer made of the song gets about 400 views per day and has had over 115,000 lifetime views on YouTube. Fans can also create a “Charley Langer” station on Pandora – a rarity for a still emerging indie artist.
While he played saxophone in Southern California for a few years after receiving his Master’s in Performance from USC, the classically trained Langer had been away from music for a few years when Jon Basebase, a renowned musician that he befriended while living in Honolulu, suggested he begin playing and writing again. Langer had moved to Hawaii, where he worked as an environmental specialist, but found ample opportunities to play with Basebase and other entertainers, including the Bobby King Royal Combo and Willie Barton Orchestra.
After relocating to Sacramento, California, Langer began focusing on composing and recording and hooked up with drummer/producer Ron Wikso, who currently performs with Gregg Rollie, founding keyboardist for Journey and Santana. Wikso brought in a heavyweight ensemble that includes rock guitarist Kurt Griffey, world-class bassist Alphonso Johnson (Weather Report), keyboardist Wally Minko (Jean Luc Ponty) and percussionist Michito Sanchez (Joe Sample).
This unique lineup helped Langer realize a vision that incorporates everything from smooth contemporary jazz to rock/fusion, old school soul/jazz, Latin and straight ahead/swing. The result is best described as intelligent smooth jazz – think Phil Woods meets Boney James. “I have varied interests and I love smooth jazz, fusion, classical, Hawaiian, reggae…and I grew up listening to swing and big band via my dad,” says Langer, who has also performed hundreds of gigs over the past eight years as part of the award winning Steely Dan tribute band, Steelin’ Dan.
“So naturally,” he says, “the music on Never The Same reflects a lot of these interests. Ron Wikso was great about making sure that it all hung together. The idea was to keep it very real with all live players and authentic instruments. If I wanted acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes or a Hammond B-3 organ, we used the real article. I wanted everything to sound organic and fresh, and I’m very excited that people are responding so positively to what they’re hearing.”
Langer’s live performances have included many different genres over the years reflecting the unique array of styles he plays on his alto and soprano saxes. Early in his musical career, he performed in Southern California with area orchestras, including the Pacific Symphony and the Santa Monica Symphony, as well as performing with other groups, such as a duo for the KCRW tribute concert to the late composer Halsey Stevens. In addition to the Hawaiian musicians he performed with during his time on Oahu, Langer has played with Morton Gould, John Adams, Zita Carno and, more recently, contemporary Christian artists Annie Herring, Julie Meyer, Chris DuPre, Pablo Perez and Gregg Stone. His gigs with Steelin’ Dan include local clubs (Harlows in downtown Sacramento) festivals like the Sacramento Jazz Festival, casinos (Harrah’s in Reno) and numerous wineries and amphitheatres. He is currently booking dates to play his own music as part of a duo with guitarist Kurt Shiflet.
FROM THE BEGINNING
Langer grew up in Boulder, Colorado, the son of a geophysicist who was also a jazz and big band aficionado. His father tried to steer him towards engineering, but music was Langer’s first love and he began taking lessons from his junior high band teacher, Vincent Gnojek, who worked with several prominent classical groups. He developed his technique under such masters of the saxophone as Gnojek, Douglas Masek and Laura Hunter.
While Langer found numerous opportunities to work as a musician after finishing grad school, he became discouraged at one point and “took the straight route” – first working in fundraising for the radio station KUSC and later following (sort of) in his dad’s scientific footsteps as an environmental specialist, supervising the cleanups of hazardous waste sites. This career gave him the foundation to pursue his musical dreams in many unique ways, from his years of playing with Steelin’ Dan to recording and releasing his debut CD.
“It’s amusing that Langer affectionately refers to Never The Same as his little art project, because normally that phrase means something a musician does for himself (and maybe a few friends) that has minimal mainstream commercial appeal. He takes an artistic approach to contemporary jazz for sure, mixing in a lot of dynamic old school soul-jazz textures (Fender Rhodes and Hammond B-3) and touching on various related styles, from Latin and edgy rock fusion to (on the album’s coolest, most unexpected excursion, “Upside Down”), straight ahead jazz. But avant-garde this isn’t. In fact, it’s one of the most infectious and engaging, instantly likeable in the pocket independent artist releases this year. It’s funky, it swings, it’s playful, it’s emotional – that’s a lot of places for a musical heart to go on one collection, but Langer does it all naturally and organically, supplementing his sharp array of sax sounds with real instruments and a lot of live band interaction. The title track everyone is hearing on The Weather Channel and YouTube is great, but just scratches the surface of Langer’s many musical muses. Let’s hope he does another “little art project” soon. All contemporary jazz albums should be this exciting.