By NATHAN RIZZO // Unconcerned with dogma, willing to trust his compass as an artist, and why he can shed his assigned identity,
The guitarist and composer speaks with OMN in advance of his Wednesday, April 19 performance with Chris Eldridge and Aoife O’Donovan at Portland’s Aladdin Theater.
Julian Lage is a jazz player. Mentored by Jim Hall, in his time the instrument’s preeminent elder statesman, the 29 year-old Lage is often spotted with a sunburst Linda Manzer archtop and holds a position with Gary Burton’s band once bequeathed to no less than Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Kurt Rosenwinkel. He last played in Portland with Scott Colley and Eric Harland, a pair of virtuosos frequently invoked by music students jousting over the identities of the world’s finest bassist and drummer. So, how can Americana - seemingly worlds apart from jazz’s dense harmony and fluid time - come so effortlessly to him? And with such effervescent vitality?
One answer lies simply in the scope of Lage’s talents. Irrespective of the myriad party line biographical snippets, which often begin with Jules at Eight and his prodigious youth, deserved blessings from the likes of Hall and Metheny, and his gilded ascent to jazz’s upper realms, Lage has never been the stylistic purist his pedigree may otherwise suggest. The first instrument to catch his eye was not the Gibson L5 of Wes Montgomery, but his father’s cardboard mock-up of a Fender Telecaster, a quintessentially rock guitar known only to discerning jazz listeners as that of Bill Frisell, Ed Bickert and perhaps Ted Greene. As a child, Lage, like past generations and surely those to follow, was enamored of Stevie Ray Vaughan and sought the tutelage of Ali Akbar Khan, the Indian sarod legend with whom he once spent an entire lesson simply learning to tune his guitar. His jazz playing features the expansive dynamism and subtle wrist-facilitated vibrato employed by Spanish guitarists. By all appearances, there is little to which Lage is either unable to adapt his talents or unwilling to explore.
Another may be attributable what the New York Times once termed “a disarming spirit of generosity in [Lage’s] musicianship,” and “a keener sense of judicious withholding.” And it is here where Lage truly shines; when paired with another musician in an improvised dialogue. In particular, it appears that Lage maintains a special affinity for duo performance, whether an NPR Tiny Desk appearance alongside Burton, an informal standards jam with English solo guitarist Martin Taylor, or the recording of 2015’s Room with Wilco’s Nels Cline. Perhaps less immediately impressive than a succession of flashy runs through a passage in seemingly amorphous time, a musician’s capacity to relate is paramount, and if Lage’s strengths as an artist may be distilled, his conversational aptitude is surely at their fore.
Perhaps this broadly spectral creativity and musical sociability is behind Mount Royal, Lage’s magnificent February release with Chris Eldridge, like Lage, an accomplished young guitarist known for his work with Punch Brothers, the five-time Grammy nominated bluegrass quintet. With two recordings to their credit - 2013’s Close to Picture EP and Avalon, a full-length follow up released one year later - the duo have reunited for a series of compositions for acoustic guitar that showcase Lage’s very finest qualities as a musician. Each track, from “Bone Collector[’s]” swelling dynamism to the earnest sweetness of “Everything Must Go” and carefully attentive accompaniment on Eddie Vedder’s “Sleeping By Myself, has an easy and fundamentally personal feel that is fast becoming one of Lage’s hallmarks.
In Mount Royal, Lage has made an album that only he, in partnership with Eldridge, could make. It is a counterpoint to the narrowly “virtuosic” records often demanded of heralded talents on Lage’s order, and one which sees him applying many of jazz’s unspoken, and perhaps unteachable, lessons: narration, consideration, and feeling. He seems unconcerned with dogma, willing to trust his compass as an artist, and why he can shed his assigned identity, however well-intentioned, to such great effect, one for which we are all the better.
When did you and Chris [Eldridge] first decide you wanted to do another record together?
You know, two or three years ago. Mount Royal is kind of the record we wanted to do when we ended up recording Avalon, which is our last full-length release. And we had plans to just take a year, write some music and workshop stuff. We ended up partnering with [Kenneth Pattengale] of Milk Carton Kids, and he was like “That’s cool, but why don’t you just do what you’re doing already, and I’ll record it and we’ll make a record.” And we were happy with that record, but it was in place of the type of record Mount Royal eventually became.
So, it got put on the back burner. Then, a little over a year ago, we started the effort to make this record.
Just out of curiousity, who does the album art for your records? It’s always really neat.
Thanks man! Those were actually done by three different people. This latest one was done by Connor Dwyer. They’re mostly from the South; people who came to the attention of my manager, who’s down in Nashville.
But it’s hard to get artwork that you like. [Laughs]
I don’t want to call it a lost art, but album illustration seems like such a different discipline now. So much looks like it was just drawn up only to stand out on a thumbnail image.
Yeah, I have to remember that it’s worth the time to make it something cool that you like. You get people like, “Ok, we need it yesterday.” And then you go, “Oh, shit - as long as it has my name on it, it’s cool.” But any time I’ve done that, I kind of regret it. I go, “What am I doing? Everyone can wait. Let’s just wait until we actually like it.”
And that’s how all of those records were. It took longer than everyone wanted, but everyone was happier than they expected. But it was worth it.
When you were starting to really get into music, were you the kind of person who would check out the cover art and everything in the liner notes?
Oh, hell yeah! All of that. Every detail about the packaging was really exciting. I had the cover to Lee Ritenour’s tribute to Wes Montgomery on my wall as a poster.
Just briefly, what’s your background with Chris? When did you guys first start playing together?
We started playing about five or six years ago, and we met through his band Punch Brothers. I went to see him play - I was actually going to see him play because I had a record date with Chris Thile planned. We were backstage, and Chris Thile was doing something, and Critter [Eldridge] and I were like, “Let’s play a tune!” We had our guitars, and we just hit it off so well.
I think we just left it at that for the first few years; we’d get together and we’d practice and we’d work on tunes. Then we said, “We should do something.” And enough time went by to where Critter actually said, “If we don’t put this in our calendars, it’s not going to be a legitimate thing.” We kind of willed it to happen. We were like, “Ok. On these dates, we’ll go to Ohio and our friend will record us for a good price. We love him and we have four songs we could do.”
Ultimately, it’s all been very organic. Obviously, it’s a project that has to work between some of the more time-consuming projects that we’re involved with. But, right now, It doesn’t feel like a side project to us. It feels like it’s its own entity; that we’re trying to feed and keep healthy. So, the premise of why we do it - other than being dear friends - is that we’re kind of like advocates. I think of it like we’re researchers, but without any of the prestige. [Laughs] I just feel like we’re interested in what two guitars can do together, especially following these American traditions of acoustic folkloric music. So, we’re kind of just chipping away more out of curiosity; writing songs featuring that and figuring out ways to play live that showcase it.
I guess it’s really a project of passion for both of us.
I get the sense when I listen to you play. You seem to fit together so well. Within that dichotomy, how would you describe Chris musically? What sorts of things about his playing and writing really stand out to you?
That’s such a good question. He’s one of the most soulful musicians I’ve ever known; in the way that all the best blues and jazz players are. There’s that thing where you’re just like, “This is human and distinct.” It feels real. And that’s what I’m always hit with; that kind of sensibility brought to the music when it’s technically demanding, from a flatpicking point of view, but doesn’t just become a technical exercise. It’s like, “Wow! This makes me feel something and I’m knocked out by it.”
There’s also his sense for form and presentation. I come from a background where music can be kind of relegated, and not in a bad way, but like, “Nobody’s listening anyway, so we’re just going to do our thing.” Which is really cool; there’s a lot of great music to be involved with that’s maybe more avant-garde or left of center and not “For The People” or going to be heard on the radio, or whatever. You know, “Fuck ‘em!” [Laughs]
One of the cool things about this project is that it comes flows from part of an Americana archetype, and Critter has a beautiful way of taking and sculpting it so you could play it for anyone and in any context. He strikes a really nice balance of being an entertainer without pandering. And to me, that’s fascinating. In the jazz world, it’s more likely that you’ll turn your back to the audience than cater to them. And if you cater to them, then it’s not real jazz! [Laughs] There’s sort of a stigma around it.
So [Eldridge] always reminds of me of the balance that can be struck, which is a good thing to present in the world right now.
Can you speak to how the songs on the record came together? Did you guys block out time to sit together and write? Or did you each come into the studio with ideas and hash things out there?
We blocked off really specific times where we said, “For the next four days, we’re just going to work morning, noon, and night.” And we did a lot of writing experiments where we would say, “Ok, a record’s 45 minutes. Let’s improvise 11 songs and then record it.” And we’d go, “Well, this works because there’s this quality, but there’s nothing memorable; there’s no theme.” Then we’d say, “What’s the theme?” Then we’d go back and do another 45 minutes and 11 songs. We would work at it that way; we’d do that for many days.
And we would do it the other way, where we’d say, “Ok, let’s break up and each write half a dozen songs and then come back and see if anything sticks.” I’d say, “What about this?” And he’d say, “It’s cool, but maybe not for this record.” Or, he’d come up with something and I’d say, “That’s great, but maybe it needs this little thing.” We were very self-indulgent in the best possible way. [Laughs] I mean, we didn’t have a label expecting anything. You know, we’re kind of invisible in a certain way. We don’t have the kinds of pressures that other projects sometimes have. So, we took advantage of that liberty.
We actually made this record once, and we recorded it for about a week with 20 songs and then threw most of the recordings - and the music - out and wrote another record. So, Mount Royal is kind of an evolution of a lot of experimentation.
You both strike such a natural balance between the lead and accompaniment, and never play over one another. Has that always been there? Or is it something you both have to remain conscious of and work at?
That’s a great question. The truth is, I don’t really know! It doesn’t feel like a fight. It’s never like, “If only he’d get off my back, I could really play.” It’s the most supportive, wonderful feeling you’ll ever have. But there are times you want to go beyond that; where you say, “Nothing’s wrong, but how could we play so we really want to take a musical risk, and so that there’s nothing getting in the way of that.”
A lot of things we’d practice in rehearsal are nuanced like that. We’d say, “Yeah, the soloing’s cool. I don’t feel encumbered, but suppose I wanted to play free against steady quarter notes. How do we do it in such a way that it doesn’t feel zany?” Because it’s not meant to be for novel effect; it’s a genuine pursuit. Then there were these modifications we’d make so that things never felt gratuitous. It’s always about learning how to contextualize each other naturally, but also contextualizing the things we’re both trying to get better at, too. And that’s where we’re partners at the end of the day.
I’ve asked various people about this before, but I know that, within jazz, being a listener and staying conscious of the other musicians in a group is considered something of a playing chop. Does Chris come out of that kind of musical tradition? I don’t know much about his background.
Oh, absolutely. I’ve felt like jazz got a charitable acknowledgement, being the style of music in which listening is cultivated. And sometimes, in extreme cases, it’s presented that way as though other forms of music don’t hinge on the same sensitivity. And what I’ve learned, especially about the bluegrass tradition or in any popular music or in singing songs, is that it’s no different. It’s like, in a room with the best improvisers, if you’re trying to play a beautiful, heartfelt love song in that tradition and you’re not listening to the nuance of the phrasing or what the lyrics are about, you will just ruin it! It won’t be chalked up to, “Oh, it’s cool - it’s jazz.” It’ll be, “Oh, that’s bad and tasteless.” [Laughs]
I’ve learned so much about that and, to bring it back to jazz, it’s all helped me listen better than I did when I was younger. And it could be better.
Whose idea was it to do “Sleeping By Myself,” the Eddie Vedder tune?
That was my idea! The first records I did were on EmArcy, and they’re part of Universal, so I used to go to their office and they’d give me CDs. I got that Eddie Vedder ukulele record [Ukulele Songs] right when it came out, and I loved it. I was in L.A. and I put it on, and was like, “That was really cool.”
Fast forward to making this record; we did two days’ worth of experiments with Critter’s voice, where he would cover certain people and songs to figure out the range that fit him. We could do anything, but we wanted to find what felt best. So, we figured out a range, and we were like, “I think Eddie Vedder has a similar range on a few of these songs.”
Then we put that on, and we were like, “Oh! That song was cool.” We just did it as a test, along with another song from that record. We thought, “That’s really cool, and it sounds beautiful in this register.” And we ended up going and finding other songs that were similar to it. There’s a Nick Lowe song that’s similar. But these are the ones that no one will ever hear! [Laughs]
But that discovery was really helpful for us; to relate to Eddie Vedder and his instrument.
Can simple songs like that be as powerful and fulfilling to play as really heavy stuff like Coltrane’s “Naima,” for example?
Yes-yes. That’s totally what goes through our minds as jazz musicians. That’s the range that you’re always kind of comparing things to. But, totally, totally, totally. It’s kind of the same thing, you know? I kind of have to feel that way.
I have a friend who gave me some great advice about writing when I was working on the World’s Fair record. He was saying that every song needs to have what you’d call “terms of engagement;” almost like the reasons they exist. They’re things that you can verbalize.
I thought that was really hip. So, when I was going through the songs, I’d think, “Why does this one exist?” And I’d be like, “This one’s cool because it’s fast - it’s the fast song.” And there’d be other ones where it’d be like, “These are the simple songs.”
I know it’s kind of nerdy, but I made a list of things that would be illegitimate reasons for a song to exist as a song. But “being simple” was actually at the top of the list, because it was just too vague. I thought that a song isn’t worth listening to or playing because it’s simple. Our capacity for complexity and unorthodox everything is really high and really vast. So, with those songs, I thought, “It’s not because it’s simple; it’s because it utilizes the D-string and harmonics on the twelfth fret, or whatever.” I’d get really specific, and then the whole “simple” thing disintegrated. And I was really happy for that. I literally had to get that word out of my vocabulary because it was almost an excuse for playing lazy.
“Naima” isn’t simple and neither is “Sleeping By Myself;” neither is simple. But they do have really good reasons for existing. And it’s usually just a little different than that first reaction.