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JT Editor Evan Haga Introduces the May 2015 Issue

Julian Lage: Keeping it simple

Music, especially jazz, influencing writing doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record: To start, it’s responsible for an endless, indiscriminate sea of overwrought poetry, much of which I’ve received for publishing consideration over the years, despite the fact that I don’t recall JazzTimes ever featuring poetry. But in researching and writing this month’s cover story on guitarist Julian Lage, I heard a lot of music and took part in a good deal of conversation that define the aesthetic principles I value most in music journalism.

Those criteria boil down to simplicity and efficiency and a lack of ego. Whether laying down words or notes, a writer should be an intelligent conduit for a strong narrative or concept or theme. Complex feelings and ideas are made accessible in great art; in the other kind, things that everyone already knows are shrouded in florid language-or, if you like, overcooked harmonies and head-scratching rhythms. Sure, there’s always a place for virtuosity and density. But a little goes a long way.

Lage arrived at related conclusions while writing his recent solo acoustic disc, World’s Fair. In the way an aging saxophonist might offer his most sublimely curated playing after his breath has begun to fail him, Lage’s gorgeous, lucid new melodies formed as he was rehabilitating his left hand, seriously injured through overuse. Away from the guitar, he stripped his solo arranging down to its core elements by stomping a rhythm while tapping a melody and bassline; if the movements were flowing, he’d return to the instrument. As he says of these trimmed-down songs, “They either work or they don’t.”

When crafting Lage’s profile, I thought of what worked and what didn’t with a similarly nonchalant focus. The saga of Lage’s injuries and the subsequent rebuilding of his technique-that worked, as did the outline of his upbringing as a child prodigy surrounded by kindly mentors. A critical assessment that connected his mother’s talent for interior design to his thinking about jazz guitar, not so much. General assignment reporters learn early on where the juice is in a feature; for music writers, tripped up by the notion of making art out of other art, it gets cloudier. So I hope you enjoy the story, that it informs and entertains you as you absorb it on the couch, on the train or over breakfast. But more than anything, I hope it inspires you to check out Lage’s music on record and at your local concert venue. (Trust me, he gets out there.)

Originally Published