For Julian Lage, Love Hurts and Music Heals

The guitarist is on a quest for musical singularity

Julian Lage (photo: Nathan West)
Julian Lage (photo: Nathan West)

Jazz Hands

There’s a wide legacy in these licks of Lage: shades of Scofield, the harmolodics of James Blood Ulmer and Bern Nix, the burning filigrees of John McLaughlin, the stippling and tone-stacks of Sonny Sharrock, Pat Martin’s diminished scale and whole-tone excursions, and the voice-leading and impeccable phrasing of a Barney Kessel or Johnny Smith. Perhaps that’s no surprise for a guy who’s been enrolled at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Berklee College of Music, the Ali Akbar College of Music (where he studied tabla, fer chrissakes), and the Stanford Jazz Workshop. What is surprising is the vulnerability and adventure in much of Lage’s recent playing, his willingness to play “too hard,” “too out,” “too recklessly,” or “too little.” The sound of speakers frying, bends that go deliciously microtonal, wryly awkward breaks in the action, wild glissandos and sweeps: While Lage’s mastery of the material underpins all his moves, there’s little evident concern for making this collection of mostly live first takes in any way manicured.

Lage often lets his fingers frame the musical debate, before judgments about good taste and proper playing interfere. As a visiting teacher, he once explained to students that “a lot of what I do is led by kinesthetic curiosity,” a slippery slope perhaps in a jazz tradition often wedded to playing what’s conscious and intentional. “That’s a very guitar culture-based thing,” he suggests. “That if you just wiggle your fingers, it’s not the ‘real thing.’ At the same time, the contradiction I’m often struck by is that in the same breath, the teaching also encourages one to be mindless, or at least without thought, to be free of theoretical hangups and just play.”

One possible practice strategy to help guide one toward such liberation is “to exhaust, or express in as complete a fashion as possible, what your body wants to do,” Lage offers. “Ask yourself: ‘What if I didn’t put a governor on my fingers? What if I started playing but didn’t make it about taste, but just see what happened?’ I don’t believe in suppressing any urges on the practicing level, because in my experience, everything I have suppressed comes up stronger later when I least want it.” Imagine, he says, that while practicing, you decide to play nothing but eighth-notes throughout an entire song, with no consideration for the music: “Well, after about 10 seconds, you’re likely to hear something that’ll make you stop and say, ‘Now, what was that?’ Before you know it, you’re building a new framework around the music, just based on the feeling that certain combinations of notes and rhythms convey. Before you know it, you’re in the belly of the beast, making musical decisions.”

As to his more deliberate musical choices, Lage steadfastly insists that his soloing and harmonization palette is ever-changing, though certain key elements resurface again and again—for example, the use of triad (three-note) patterns that may or may not be related to the underlying chord progressions. For guitarists, he explains, the splendid wild card in this triadic approach is that one has four fingers at one’s disposal: “Mathematically speaking, you’re dealing with four digits in a three-note world. I like that instability. Probably the biggest characteristic of my style, then, is that things don’t finish—in other words, you always leave one thing hanging. You have one finger free at any given time, and you can start another phrase, and if you get to the end of that and you have that extra finger hanging, start another phrase.

“For me, it’s about looking for volatility in structure. What’s going to help tip this over into the next phrase? What’s going to tip this over to the next chorus, or what’s going to help hand this musical idea off to another player? That’s what I’m fascinated by. That’s also my interpretation of what I hear with people like Keith Jarrett or John Abercrombie or Charles Lloyd, who spin these beautiful webs of musical poetry, and everything works to take you to the next musical idea. Conversely, I think to base one’s style in a more stepwise or scalar approach, as guitar players often do, there may be more of a regimented sound to that.”

An American Prayer

Now that Lage has finished the third leg of his exploration of American music through the decades, has he reached a natural conclusion point? “Well, the trilogy of trio records is what I had dreamt about,” he says, “starting with this pre-bebop thing, then going a little bit more towards the ’50s, and then forging ahead into some of the later ’60s and ’70s, and beyond on Love Hurts. I’m such a nerd for where things came from, and I really seek to create a historical framework, and to remain conscientious that I didn’t create this thing—it’s not like any of this hadn’t been done before. So how do I respect that and research it, keeping in mind that this music isn’t a hundred years old? In many cases it’s even within my lifetime, with people I’ve played with, so it’s a nod to the community I’m very fortunate to be a part of.”

That said, Lage is certain the way forward is less about reverence and historical curiosity, and more about finding his own voice as a composer and bandleader—and, it might be said, as a member of society. “I do dream of forming something that’s more singular,” he reflects. “That’s the most logical step I can think of, and it’s taken these three records to make sense of what that direction looks like. It could be expanding the ensemble, or putting more limitations on the kind of music we play, or incorporating acoustic guitar into it—it’s always about honing the singularity of the sound. And though it might seem esoteric, my real vision with this is that I think music is deeply healing. I think of people like Carlos Santana, with a voice that’s so singular and beautiful, and yes, healing. I want to share love and light through the music to anyone who is listening. I think we’ve perhaps arrived at a moment in our culture when that could really happen.”

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).