For Julian Lage, Love Hurts and Music Heals

The guitarist is on a quest for musical singularity


Left to right: Jorge Roeder, Julian Lage, and Dave King (photo: Nathan West)
Left to right: Jorge Roeder, Julian Lage, and Dave King (photo: Nathan West)

Material Considerations

Eclectic though it may be, the material on Love Hurts reflects Lage’s interest in finding single vehicles through which to express a total vision, a concept he says he first encountered when working with New York avant-garde composer John Zorn on albums like 2017’s Midsummer Moons, with guitarist Gyan Riley, and 2018’s Insurrection, with guitarist Matt Hollenberg, ex-Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Kenny Grohowski. “I remember,” Lage recalls, “distinctly feeling that all the things I had dreamt about incorporating into my playing, whether it be harmonic, rhythmic, or structural—all those things seemed to live within John’s compositions. Not only did they live within them, but they were presented as sheet music in a way that was a really potent direct hit of it.

“To be honest,” he continues, “I was late to the game in recognizing just how much lives in a single composition. Sure, there had been individual songs in my life that felt like that, but with Love Hurts, I just learned so many songs, wrote them down on pen and paper to see what they looked like in my own handwriting.”

The biggest leap, Lage says, was unpacking the theoretical subtext of Coleman’s “Tomorrow Is the Question.” “That was the one where I just thought, ‘There’s no way you can quantify what Ornette or Don Cherry are doing, it’s too crazy.’ It just felt so organic, like it simply springs out of the speaker.” But writing the tune down yielded major rewards. Lage quickly realized that it has a “rhythm changes”-style AABA form, but instead of a standard B-section chord progression, Coleman simply moves the A section’s progression up a half-step. The quirks don’t end there: The two A sections in the main form check in at slightly different lengths, as does the bridge. Lage calls these differences “an abstraction of the traditional song form,” which then settles back into the more expected 16-measure parts in the blowing sections. “That’s the dialogue between the melodic style and the soloing style that I thought was so cool. And really, each tune had its own version of that sort of moment: ‘Holy cow, so that’s what they’re doing? I had no idea.’”

A similar moment arrived while Lage was stripping Jarrett’s “The Windup” down to its bones, and discovered, a bit to his surprise, that the tune made “a lot of sense on guitar. We’d recorded it,” he recalls, “and then I heard Pat Metheny’s version from a live show in the late ’70s, and I was struck by the way these very fast chord changes are mixed with an otherwise very C-major tonality. I felt I’d heard this language before, in the way that Metheny and John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner—all those people coming out of the ECM world that Keith was a part of—were thinking about composition. I just thought, ‘Oh, this is a guitar song,’ and I think that’s because of the way other people took ownership of that language before I ever discovered it.” The song’s percolating pick attack also owes much to the influence of bluegrass, what Lage calls “that very precise, articulate flatpicking kind of line that I’m obsessed with. Yeah, it could almost be a Tony Rice tune in that respect!”


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).