Guitar Summit: A Chat with Nels Cline and Julian Lage

Two hundred percent power

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Julian Lage at the CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival
By Melissa Mergner
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Nels Cline
By Yuka Honda
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Nels Cline and Julian Lage, Brooklyn 2012
By Scott Friedlander
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Nels Cline and Julian Lage
By Scott Friedlander

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It’s mid to late April and schedules have needed adjusting. Nels Cline and Julian Lage, two of today’s most forward-thinking and original guitarists, were set to play a Brooklyn duo gig and then record a studio album, but all of it had to be postponed. And though Cline expected to have summer 2013 free, now he’ll be joining Wilco, the major rock band he’s worked with since 2004, on the AmericanaramA tour with Bob Dylan, My Morning Jacket and others.

“So we can record in the fall—we don’t have a deadline,” Cline says of the Cline-Lage duo, a hugely promising venture that has gigged a handful of times at Le Poisson Rouge, the Stone and elsewhere. One thing will go forward immediately, however: Cline and Lage will record a seven-inch single (A- and B-sides) to support their upcoming appearance at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival. “We want to have something fun as a little introduction, a souvenir for people,” Cline explains. “We’ll just do tape so it’ll be analog format at every level.”

A former mainstay of the Los Angeles creative music scene, Cline now makes his home in New York, although “my story is I haven’t really moved,” he says. “I just live here all the time. I still have all my stuff in Los Angeles.”

With his 2006 tribute to Andrew Hill, New Monastery, his trio work with the Nels Cline Singers, and many other projects, Cline has exhibited the temperament and ability of someone deeply versed in jazz while pushing toward its avant-garde and rock-related outer regions. He’s got 32 years on Lage, age 25, a prodigious talent who broke into the jazz scene apprenticing with Gary Burton. A new New Yorker as well, Lage has since flourished with the albums Sounding Point and Gladwell, and made key sideman appearances with Burton, Eric Harland, Taylor Eigsti and others.

The day before they recorded their single, Cline and Lage joined JazzTimes for a full-on guitar-nerd discussion at Sammy’s Noodle Shop in the West Village.

JazzTimes: You’re both Californians. Is that a musical connection in any way?

Nels Cline: The only ironic connection is I learned that I had met Julian when he was a teenager, outside a Charlie Hunter gig in Petaluma. He went to the gig with his dad, and my band the Singers opened for Charlie. Scott Amendola was playing with Charlie that night, replacing Tony Mason. And I found out that for 10 years, my Singers lineup with Scott and [bassist] Devin Hoff had been Julian’s trio. He said, “I have your band!”

Julian Lage: I poached his rhythm section very early on.

NC: They never told me! Anyway, we met again in New York, right across the street from here at French Roast. I was invited by Brian Camelio of ArtistShare to start coming to what they call these Jim Hall crony lunches. I’d written a piece in JazzTimes selecting 10 tracks by Jim Hall, and Brian saw it and wanted me to meet Jim. That’s how I heard about Julian—Jim was talking about him. So Julian finally made one of the crony lunches, and we started chatting afterward, “Oh, California, blah blah blah.” I guess it was some kind of spiritual connection.

JL: I wanted to write that piece about my favorite Jim Hall records. They were like, “Oh, we’re sorry, Nels took Jim.” So I picked modern guitarists.

NC: Jim wrote me a thank-you note, which is how he rolls. He’s old-school and really delightful.

JT: Can you each talk about your previous experiences playing duo, and why the idiom works so well for you musically?

JL: Growing up I studied with Randy Vincent, from the time I was 8 until 12. I took two three-hour lessons a week for that crucial period, and it was just duo guitar. We played, studied records, learned things together. So from very early on, duo always felt like the most complete expression, at least of the guitar music that I was a part of. Over the years I’ve played duets with Martin Taylor. I did a brief little run of things with [John] Abercrombie. I played duo a lot with David Grisman, and acoustic music was always an interest of mine.

When Nels and I first played together, the way I describe it is “I found my people.” At last I found a scenario where you could have two guitars, you could be free and adventurous, you could utilize sound and be extremely melodic and evocative. Sometimes people say “duo” and it kind of downplays the impact—“Oh, it’s just a duo.” It’s 200-percent power is how I think of it.

NC: I’ve actually thought of myself as Mr. Duo for a while. The level of intimacy and immediacy is generally profound. And maybe I have an ability to reach across those few inches and really connect with that one person. Vinny Golia and I played duo for many years, and I started with my old musical partner Eric Von Essen in 1978, playing bass and acoustic guitar duos. It was totally inspired by listening to Jim Hall and Ron Carter. There’s one duet on an Oregon record with Glen Moore and Ralph Towner, highly influential. The duo on Death and the Flower with Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden called “Prayer,” very influential. Jim Hall and Red Mitchell, on and on. And, of course, Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie.

Beyond that I started playing duos with Thurston Moore. Also, a duo with Zeena Parkins, with acoustic and electric harp and guitars, that goes from completely intimate to really epic and explosive. I had a duo with my musical partner Carla Bozulich for years, a duo with Devin Sarno in Los Angeles—now people would call it a noise duo, though I don’t really like that term so much. I’ve done guitar duets with Elliott Sharp; we have two records out. I played a duo gig with Marc Ribot about a year and a half ago. I was terrified but I think it ended up working out really well.

So at one point I thought, “Gee, all I’m doing is duos.” I realized that it was a combination of it working, me liking it, but also really much easier to schedule [laughs].

To read the rest of this story, purchase the issue in print or from the Apple Newsstand. Print and digital subscriptions are also available.

Originally published in July/August 2013

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