In writing and preparing the music for his remarkable new solo acoustic guitar album, Julian Lage battled one of the perils of musicianship that hasn’t been exploited in a Hollywood biopic.
A few years back, he received a grant through the Shifting Foundation, a referral that came via a dear friend and collaborator, guitarist Nels Cline. Lage, best known as a rising solo artist and through work with Cline, Gary Burton, Fred Hersch, Eric Harland, progressive-bluegrass musician Chris Eldridge and others, had long been fascinated with the idea of employing the guitar as a mini-orchestra in a lyrical and personal way. With his newfound resources in place, he cleared the summer of 2013 in order to dedicate himself to writing original music for solo acoustic guitar. “I said, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to write all day.’ Within about three days, after playing all day every day, I blew out my left hand.”
It’s deep winter in New York, and Lage, 27, is talking in the living room/music space of his modest Manhattan apartment, a cluster of converted maids’ quarters on the top floor of a brownstone near Central Park West. He’s articulate and well mannered, and he seems preternaturally gentle in a way that evokes the personality of fellow guitarist Bill Frisell, one of his heroes. Put a different way, it’s nearly impossible to imagine him shouting in traffic; even his recounting of a potentially career-ending injury takes on the cadence of a children’s story. “I’d had an injury maybe a year before,” he continues, “where I was playing a show and my left hand and arm completely spasmed shut. I would open [my hand] and it would shut again. I finished the gig with my pinkie and third finger, got offstage and there was nothing.”
So he sought treatment and overhauled his technique, only to fall into old habits. Back at square one in 2013, his new diagnoses were terrifying, and included focal hand dystonia, in which the brain loses its neurological connection to the fingers, causing them to involuntarily spread out or curl in. “I’m a candidate for it,” Lage explains. “Anyone who’s played so much guitar for so long, piano players, anyone who writes or types a lot.” And how much is so much guitar? “Between eight and 11 hours a day, from the time I was about 7 until I was 13, 14. That’s why no one was surprised.” [laughs]
With Cline’s assistance, he found a sympathetic doctor who identified a large amount of scar tissue. Once again, Lage set out to reconstruct the abilities that have made him one of today’s most respected players. (Case in point: In JazzTimes’ 2014 Expanded Critics’ Poll, he topped Frisell, John Scofield and Pat Metheny in the Best Guitarist category.) Following his rehabilitation, Lage attacked the solo guitar project with a renewed sense of purpose. “It was almost like the first step of a new relationship with the instrument, and I didn’t foresee that,” he says. “Before, I thought, ‘This is a culmination. I’ve been playing, I’ve been doing all this stuff, and now I’ll put it on a solo guitar record.’ And while it is a culmination in a lot of ways, it was also wiping the slate clean: What can I sit down and play that doesn’t make me feel bad? What can I do that’s potentially healing? And what can I do that will set the foundation for where I’d like to see my relationship with the guitar go?”
Despite such clarity of thought, Lage still wasn’t happy with the music he was writing. He was so displeased, in fact, that he recorded and scrapped an entire solo album. After further reflection, and the consultation of composer Gabriel Kahane, Lage decided his material needed a thorough, honest streamlining. “I had underestimated the power of space,” he says. “When confronted with the idea of playing by yourself, it’s really natural to fill up space and make it not seem diminutive. … [But] this is the one chance I get to hear the decay of the notes on the guitar, to hear its natural, weird, nuanced resonances.” Lage refashioned his work to rely on just two strong voices: one bass and one melody. “Only as needed would I incorporate something in the middle. They’re all songs you can kind of play with two index fingers on the piano.”
The end result of Lage’s persistence, World’s Fair (Modern Lore), bears out his ethos of efficiency and simplicity. Though he does manage to flaunt his technical mastery of the guitar, it’s Lage’s composing and arranging, full of memorable melodies, that forge the album’s deepest impressions. The late Garry Harrison’s “Red Prairie Dawn,” with its Aaron Copland-like lift, is a reminder of American folk music’s Gaelic roots. “Gardens” stands up next to the most stunning solo arrangements to emerge in the wake of John Fahey, and that trailblazing guitarist is one of many baby-boomer cultural touchstones that World’s Fair implies. Although it isn’t a jazz-guitar record per se, it does summon up memories of a certain type of ’70s-era jazz fan, inquisitive but unpretentious. If the album were released by Columbia back then, it’d fit comfortably among LPs by Metheny, Ralph Towner, Leo Kottke and Keith Jarrett inside the turntable console.
Although Lage reveres the solo jazz guitar tradition associated with masters like Joe Pass and Martin Taylor, a friend and mentor, World’s Fair doesn’t belong to that heritage. “The main [piece of inspiration] from the jazz chord-melody thing was to not draw too much attention to the parts,” he says. “What I like about that realm is when you’re knocked out by it but you quickly forget that they’re playing guitar.” Instead, he names his new record’s source material as that “American music domain of fiddle music, bluegrass and singer-songwriter guitar playing, in the way that you hear a singer playing guitar to support themselves, and they might not be virtuosic but their pulse is perfect and their touch is just right.”
Lage is correct that World’s Fair both does and does not represent a culmination of his creative life. Like many musicians with at least a decade of recording credits, he’s done too much and his interests are too wide-ranging for a single album to credibly define him. Yet only Lage, whose upbringing as a child prodigy took place squarely between opportunity and humility, could have produced a guitar album of such accomplished charm.
If you type “Julian Lage” into YouTube’s search engine, you’ll find a clip featuring the guitarist, in 1996, soloing alongside Carlos Santana for a crowd of thousands at an amphitheater in Concord, Calif. The song is the Funkadelic classic “Maggot Brain,” a rock-guitar litmus test, and Lage, cute and composed in a blazer and T-shirt, plays brambles of blues licks on a Fender Stratocaster. The audience collectively loses it whenever the 8-year-old begins to play, though it doesn’t shake him. He’d been working toward this moment for a year, and he executes like a pro.
Today, Lage can’t recall much about being onstage that evening, but he does remember the circumstances that led up to his sitting in, and they’re revealing. Through a good word from a friend of his father’s, he’d met and played for Santana backstage in Concord the year prior. Impressed, the iconic guitarist had invited him to join the band onstage for a song that night. “My parents and I talked about it and we said no,” remembers Lage. “[To] be an 8-year-old in front of 20,000 people, thinking you were just going to hear a show, that could really mess you up, or at least put you in an uncomfortable situation.
“But we said thank you for the offer, and [Santana] said, ‘We come back every year. Will you come back in a year?’ It set up a goal. … And [the next year] I played and fell asleep in the car on the way home.” [laughs]
Those sorts of knotty, delicate decisions that come with raising prodigal talent are at the core of Jules at Eight, an artfully shot black-and-white documentary by Mark Becker that garnered awards in 1997. The film follows Lage around his native Northern California, through gigs with adult musicians, a classical guitar lesson and blues jams where the young guitarist’s phrasing and sense of interplay are strikingly precocious. Also key to the narrative is Lage’s invulnerable relationship with his father, Mario, at the time a waiter in San Francisco. As on that night in Concord, Mario appears sincerely dedicated to nurturing his son’s aptitude for music while protecting him from the adult demands of the musical profession. (Prodigal gifts in the jazz and classical worlds are difficult enough to manage. When it comes to the guitar, with its place at the helm of blues and rock, the stakes get higher, scarier and stranger.)
“[People] can ask a lot of questions, like, ‘Aren’t you proud?’” Mario says in the film. “One that comes up a lot is ‘Do you sort of feel like you’re his manager?,’ which I find detestable … because that’s a relationship founded on exploitation, not really what you feel for your child.” Lage’s voiceovers parallel his playing in their curious maturity, and in one scene his measured sensitivity to schoolyard politics is almost heartbreaking. “Most of the girls in my class,” he says, “they think all the guitars I get, all the music I get, they think I’m spoiled, which is not true. I don’t know why they do this, but sometimes I’m just walking to somewhere in my school and they’ll just hit me for some reason. I don’t know if it’s because of my music, or they don’t like me. [It’s] very odd.” In his tiny voice, the young Lage claims that the one person at school who does understand his favorite music is the janitor, a fan of John Coltrane.
His father’s desire to protect his son, Lage explains, stemmed from his personal boyhood experiences as a visual-arts prodigy, who exhibited his work seriously before his teens only to move away from it later on in his adolescence. “He liked it because it was his, and then it became everyone’s,” Lage says. But more than a guardian, Lage’s father was also his son’s first, and probably most profound, teacher. As if following instinct, Mario developed an effective pedagogy, even though he only started playing guitar the year before his 5-year-old son did. So Lage wouldn’t become discouraged, his father started him on the easier-playing electric guitar over the acoustic. Instead of a song, the boy’s first lesson consisted of an A-minor pentatonic scale; if a song came up short of its recorded version, Mario’s thinking went, that might also dishearten his son. After Lage got a handle on the physicality of running the scale, his father analogized the concept of narrative phrasing by pouring out a glass of water in fits and starts.
Lage’s abilities soon became outsized, however, requiring a stream of music schools and mentors, not to mention homeschooling and a high school proficiency exam facilitated by the cooperative Sonoma County public schools system. There were lessons at an area guitar shop, then extensive studies—six hours a week between ages 8 and 12—with Bay Area guitar great Randy Vincent. With tastes defined by aesthetic principles rather than boundaries of genre or culture, he delved into European and Indian classical musics, and developed an enduring love of Gypsy jazz and bluegrass. (His commercial-recording debut was on Dawg Duos, a 1999 album by newgrass pioneer David Grisman, yet another mentor figure and friend.)
In 2000, Lage appeared on the Grammy Awards telecast, in a youth band featuring other future luminaries, among them pianist Eldar Djangirov, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Tony Royster Jr. On an uptempo “Straight, No Chaser,” he took a brief but impeccable solo—so spot-on, in fact, that it caught the attention of one of that year’s jazz winners, Gary Burton, the vibraphonist and educator with a knack for fostering history-making guitarists. This would be the mentorship that introduced Lage to the larger jazz world.
Not long after the Grammys, Lage received a letter from Burton that led to a gig with him—and guest Herbie Hancock—at the burgeoning TED Conference. “Julian’s musicianship exceeded even my high expectations,” Burton writes in his 2013 autobiography. More shows followed, and in 2003 Lage recorded his first of four albums with Burton, Generations, which included three of the guitarist’s tunes. In his compositions and improvisations, with their singable melodies pouring out from flowing harmonic contours, you can’t help but think of Pat Metheny—a previous Burton guitarist and fellow Jim Hall disciple. From Burton, a former prodigy, Lage also received lessons in the meaning of professionalism. “He’d say, ‘Look, I’m all for you trying things out, but keep in mind that people are paying to hear you,’” Lage explains. “They don’t know that you did the song last night. It’s your job to show up and embody the strongest playing you can. … He’d encourage me not to practice so much on tour, because he could hear that in the playing. He wanted it more like life or death.”
Up to this point in Lage’s story, it might feel like he came of age in a vacuum—jazz’s answer to Bobby Fischer, with only his father and a posse of legendary musicians for companionship. He didn’t. Lage is the youngest of five children, first of all, and explored other activities—ham radio, skateboarding—during his childhood. He’s also part of a hypertalented jazz clique that grew up in Northern California in the 1990s and coalesced around the Stanford Jazz Workshop, where Lage taught beginning at age 15. This includes musicians like saxophonist Dayna Stephens, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Taylor Eigsti, a close friend and collaborator who also understands intimately the dangers of growing up a prodigy. “If a prodigy, or someone who is really good at an early age, if they only do the bandleading thing, that can be very detrimental,” says Eigsti. “It’s easy to get addicted to the idea of ‘Oh, people are here to hear me do my thing.’ When you get older than an age that seems impressive to people, then it becomes, ‘What do you offer musically? … What do you offer that makes other people sound better?’”
Due in part to wisdom received from Burton, Lage didn’t release his first album as a bandleader, the Grammy-nominated Sounding Point, until 2009; he was 21, and had graduated from Berklee the year before. The restraint served him well, and on this album and its 2011 follow-up, Gladwell, he comes across as fully formed. His foremost influences, from Hall to Django to Tony Rice, are evident but not obvious, throughout original songs that are circuitous yet consonant and arrangements that dramatically break down and build up. Lage’s playing is deadly precise but unencumbered, evidence of heavy-duty education balanced by bandstand time. (Lage claims he’s only transcribed two solos in his life, opting to absorb his favorite solos and attempt to recreate their spirit rather than their specific notes.) More than anything, these albums defined Lage by showcasing what he isn’t, or what he offers an alternative to—for one, the hulking influence of Kurt Rosenwinkel, a brilliant guitarist-composer whose myriad young copycats have spilled into New York for the last 15 years. Because he matured so early, Lage’s points of reference are older, and more in line with a musician currently in his 40s, like Rosenwinkel himself.
In the past couple of years, Lage has released work in the duo format that outlines his strengths and offers indications of what his future might look like. He and Fred Hersch released Free Flying in 2013, playing the pianist’s music and documenting their confounding mix of melody and density. Piano/guitar duos tend to expend most of their energy attempting to stay untangled, but somehow Lage and Hersch dive into harmonic thickets without the music overcooking. “I feel like at our best we sound like one large, wacky instrument,” Hersch says. “You kind of almost don’t know who’s playing what, and it doesn’t really matter.”
Room, with the avant-garde and rock guitarist Nels Cline, arrived last year, and it’s an often finicky, hard-angled session that could be considered a sort of anti-guitar-duo guitar-duo record. As Cline explains it, this music has little to do with guitar duos that came before it; rather, its aesthetic better resembles the cool-tempered, chamber-like take on the early jazz avant-garde explored by Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne and others. There’s more there—languid acoustic composing by Cline, plus some true-blue jazz guitar conventions—but the scurrying unison lines and constantly dialoguing improvisations are what stay with you. Because of this, it offers an unobstructed look at Lage’s penchant for improvisational surprise grounded in serious harmonic knowledge—a defining characteristic of Jim Hall that Cline associates with Lage. Room also feels like one of Lage’s truest collaborations, with nary a hint of deference toward a colleague who is a much-older pal but certainly not a mentor. “The only time he’s ever sought my advice that I can recall is about effects pedals,” laughs Cline, a masterful orchestrator of guitar stompboxes.
Lage has journeyed into electronic effects, and in drummer Eric Harland’s band Voyager he often employed a wizardly looping trick. He’s also enjoyed still-climbing success with bluegrass scion Chris Eldridge, of the Punch Brothers, in a vocal/guitar duo at home in the Ryman Auditorium. There have been recording sessions with Yoko Ono, and skronky sets with John Zorn, not to mention a residency at Zorn’s Downtown venue the Stone. Lately, Lage has been enamored of trio music, and of lap-steel history, and of Fender Telecaster-style guitars, the finish line in his search for “the most austere instrument.” He says his next disc will document his working trios.
So Julian Lage is throwing everything against the wall in his heady late 20s. But then again, as someone who learned about Derek Bailey through the bluegrass community, not really. After all, “Bill Monroe is one of the most avant-garde conceptualists in the world,” he says. “And the invention of the banjo, that’s like Nels and his pedals!”
Watch JT’s video interview with Julian Lage: