For Julian Lage, Love Hurts and Music Heals

The guitarist is on a quest for musical singularity

Julian Lage
Julian Lage (photo: Nathan West)

Julian Lage is on his own today. In the largest of four practice spaces—and the only one with a proper soundstage—at a rehearsal facility near his Brooklyn home, the 31-year-old guitarist has come to woodshed a bit, a lone, lithe figure in an expansive room built to handle a full production rehearsal.

Perhaps the scale is fitting, metaphorically speaking. For the sheer scope of Lage’s artistic output over the last couple of decades on both acoustic and electric guitar, including collaborations with avant-garde svengali John Zorn, sonic anarchist and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, Punch Brothers bluegrass badass Chris Eldridge, pianist Fred Hersch, and jazz-noir drummer Kenny Wollesen, would seem to defy any conventional boundaries of style. Even the term “virtuoso”—no less reductive than Lage’s previous public designation, “child prodigy”—seems too snug a fit for a player whose strengths derive as much from his restless imagination as from the presumptive lightning bolt that bestowed him with (more than) enough raw talent to make records with Gary Burton at age 11.

Or perhaps it’s simply the poetics of space itself—the acoustic kind, and also the creative headroom to open up new expression—that’s drawn Lage unaccompanied to this reverberant chamber on a spring afternoon. Space, after all, permeates both the ambient production quality and the musical dialogue between Lage, bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer David King on Lage’s latest electric guitar album, Love Hurts (Mack Avenue). It’s the unseen fourth voice in a compelling 10-song cycle that continues Lage’s ongoing survey of the 20th-century American songbook, a reading he’s carried through from 2016’s Arclight and 2018’s Modern Lore. Here Lage’s own compositions stride reflectively alongside the trio’s spirited takes on Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre, and Keith Jarrett, plus a solemn but streetwise run at Boudleaux Bryant’s chestnut of a title track (previously covered by Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Nazareth, Gram Parsons, and Joan Jett, among others).

The loneliness, then, of the long-distance virtuoso? Or simply the spacious sound of a classic jazz trio at work?

Trio Conversant

“For me, this album completes a trilogy of approaches to the trio format,” Lage says. “The trio is a great platform for any instrument, whether it’s guitar-led, organ-led, you name it. But there’s something inherently unstable about a jazz trio, from a purely orchestrational point of view.”

Compared to a string quartet or a bluegrass ensemble, in which instruments of similar timbres and adjoining registers hand off melodic ideas to one another, Lage argues that there’s a challenging timbral disconnect in the jazz trio: “Certainly with guitar, bass, and drums, there’s greater disparity between the frequency of the cymbals and the open strings of the guitar, for example, and from there to the low end of the bass—a more skeletal system is how I think of it.”

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Lage fleshes out those bones by using his uncanny gift for harmonization, as on the lively reading of Love Hurts’ leadoff track, “In Heaven” (a Peter Ivers/David Lynch composition first heard in Lynch’s first feature film, 1977’s Eraserhead). It kicks off with Lage’s fingerstyle movement unpacking the melody while Roeder stipples the bow across his double bass as if the composer Krzysztof Penderecki were watching from the control room. Yet somehow the sounds marry. “I’ve been learning a lot about what the challenges are of a trio, and how to improvise within it,” Lage says. “Jim Hall was such a master of that: He would play whole solos and never use the B or the high E string. As a consequence, his lower-register playing had this gravitational pull toward the upper range of the bass, this lovely fusion which I’ve always thought was so gorgeous.

“It’s wonderful when the attack of the brush or the drumstick is just a bigger version of my own picking technique,” he continues, “when my right hand sort of nestles into the sound of the snare. So while it’s challenging, there can be lots of elegant transitions from the drums to the guitar, and the bass to the guitar.” Maybe, says Lage, he’s so enamored of the trio format precisely because “it forces us to fill in the blanks.”

While bassist Roeder has worked with Lage since 2009’s archtop-driven Sounding Point, the inclusion of drummer King, best known for his work with the Bad Plus, is a new pivot in Lage’s trio journey, adding urgency to his electric playing. “Dave is one of those rare characters,” Lage explains, “who can reconcile the impulses of the avant-garde with compositions and songs that are quite traditional. It never feels like he’s departing from the soul and the heartbeat of the music, and so the elements he brings from the avant-garde and improvised worlds only serve to infuse the music with a high degree of excitement and volatility and risk—all of the things that are healthy for a jazz project, and speak to jazz as a musical culture.”

It was King’s confidence in his integration of those sensibilities that led Lage and Roeder to look at material by composers who had a similar dual embrace. “We felt we had permission to truly access both things we love: songs and free playing,” Lage says. “That’s why we cover Keith Jarrett’s ‘The Windup,’ for example. He’s another total master of both songs and free playing. And Ornette [whose “Tomorrow is the Question” is featured on Love Hurts], another total master. It’s ironic to think that he was perceived as so ‘weird,’ and you really listen and it’s the most happy, effusive, positive melodic music you’ve ever heard.”

Both covers find the trio at their most knowing, syncopating melodies in the songs’ heads and getting playfully snare-heavy in transitions, while Lage blows with a carefree ease, wrapping loose arpeggios around the chords only to launch into teasing rounds of intervallic hiccups, taunting bends, and hard-picked triplet, 16th-note, and quintuplet phrases. About the license these songs allow the improviser, he says, “You’re off to the races. You can do no wrong. That’s freedom, that’s liberty. That’s all the qualities I think are worth aspiring to in any music you choose to make.”

James Rotondi

James Rotondi is a Nashville-based guitarist and writer who’s performed with Humble Pie, Mr. Bungle, Air (French Band), Billy Gibbons, Eric Burdon, the Grassy Knoll, and many others. A former senior editor at both Guitar Player and Guitar World magazines, he has also written for Rolling Stone, Spin, Mojo, Acoustic Guitar, The Wire, Premier Guitar, and The Boston Phoenix. His 2014 solo album, Into the Unknown, by Roto’s Magic Act, was hailed for its “masterful songwriting” (Blurt), “wickedly skilled guitar playing,” (Powerpopaholic) and “cinematic guitar tones” (Guitar Player).