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Julian Lage discusses the influences of Bill Frisell, John Zorn, spirituality and the vintage instruments that capture his imagination. On September 29, Julian Lage and his trio traveled from the Belly Up Tavern, a primarily rock and alternative venue in Solana Beach, a San Diego suburb, to the Musical Instrument Museum on the outskirts of Phoenix. It was the penultimate date of a 13-gig U.S. tour that had begun in Pittsburgh on September 13 — on the surface, just another show. But for Lage, 34, the occasion was anything but ordinary — an opportunity to perform on the ES-250 hollow body guitar on which Charlie Christian recorded “Solo Flight” 80 years ago.
The next day, a young guitarist who goes by “Zippy Riffs” posted on YouTube an eloquent eyewitness soliloquy of his impressions, encapsulating Lage’s immense skills and abiding artistry. He said: “The guitar is brought over and Julian sits down and starts tuning it, and a wild improv starts forming, as he starts playing these really intricate bass lines, unusual chord voicings. It goes on for about five minutes, just unleashing one new idea after another to build off in a new direction that highlights his creativity on the instrument, playing it in a way that Charlie Christian wouldn’t have played it — using the language of the past, but building upon it. His solos incorporated elements of jazz, blues, country and the aggression of rock.”
“It was a huge privilege,” Lage comments by phone a week later while driving with his wife, the accomplished singer-songwriter-guitarist Margaret Glaspy, from their New Jersey home to playwith a friend in New York. “Apart from being one of the great guitar models, which is quite rare and very coveted, what’s so striking about the ES-250 is that it reads as a modern instrument. You can play modern music on it. It feels like it was built yesterday, still has life. It’s very comfortable. And for me, as a huge fan of Charlie Christian, it’s hard not to be struck by the provenance, and think that literally the blueprint for modern improvising guitar music comes from this man and this instrument. It’s pretty emotional for me, to be quite honest.
“I’ve come to learn about myself that I love the history of the instrument and the designs,” he continues. “Guitar designs informed the music that was made, and the music made in each era informed what guitar-builders were making. There’s a lot of clues about the past when you have the chance to play anything old.”
Directly after the Phoenix gig, Lage hustled to the airport to catch a redeye to New York. Simultaneously, 700 miles north, Bill Frisell — who functions as an extension of Lage’s trio on the September Blue Note release View With a Room — did the same after an SFJazz concert with Charles Lloyd. Upon landing, both stopped by their homes, then beelined to Town Hall for a marathon day spent rehearsing for and performing in a T-Bone Burnett-produced Bob Dylan tribute concert on which they functioned as a two-guitar “pocket orchestra”for Sara Bareilles, Lizz Wright, Joe Henry, the McCrary Sisters, Punch Brothers, Joy Harjo and Glaspy (who sang “Mississippi” and “Positively Fourth Street”). After that concert, Lage caught a few hours of sleep at his New Jersey home, and left at 4 a.m. to fly to Boulder, Colorado, where he met up with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Dave King for the tour’s concluding concert.
“I don’t have words for what it’s like to play with Bill,” Lage says from the car. “He makes you a better player. He makes you listen better. He makes things feel more attainable. There’s a magnetic, generous air to everything he does. It’s natural and organic. He’s the perfect person to harness and leverage space, and also bring actual texture and different colors. When I asked Bill to be on the album, he responded with such understanding — kind of ‘I thought no one would ever ask.’ He said, ‘Oh, I get it; I’ll play rhythm guitar.’
“Playing with Bill, I experience an overwhelming sense that what I’m playing is enough. Especially with people I’m excited to play with, there can be a sense of excitement that fuels sparring and interaction and all the fun stuff. But with that can come a subliminal pressure to generate something: ‘OK, it’s the fourth chorus; what are you going to do now?’ With Bill, if I play a chord, it feels like, ‘Let’s just luxuriate there for a second. That sounds great. That’s also killing.’ Bill’s disposition occupies a space where you feel there’s no rush. Appreciation, respect, love, compassion — all those things are there. More than most anybody else, Bill somehow offers that as a transmission.”
Lage’s paean to the elder guitar hero suggests the source of the conversational, kinetic-yet-reflective flow that suffuses the seven quartet tracks on View With a Room, which comprises 10 melody-rich originals by the leader. Lage plays throughout on his signature Collings 470 JL guitar, using ElliSonics pickups and running it through a Magic Amplifiers Vibro Deluxe. Frisell deploys four different guitars for his unerringly apropos signifying, complementing Lage’s pure tone, lightning runs, massive chords, unusual voicings and capacious dynamic range.
“Each song, I think Julian had a story or picture in mind of what it was about,” Frisell says on Zoom from his Brooklyn home the morning after the Town Hall concert. He notes that Glaspy, the date’s producer, offered input from the perspective of the world she navigates to help Lage cut to the chase, excise the inessential, illuminate the message. “I appreciate the way he set up my role. It wasn’t a guitar battle, a thing where we both go off. He wanted me to be more like when I do an album with a singer, which is the way I was thinking — of Julian as the actual voice or singer. That fits into so many things I’ve done in my life. If I play on a Marianne Faithfull record, I’m not going to show you everything I can possibly do on the guitar. I’m going to do what I can do to make the song speak.”
Their mutual intuition stems from extensive shared experience. “I truly don’t remember much before hearing Bill,” Lage says over Zoom a few days before he embarked on his tour. He estimated that this signal event occurred when he was 8, the year a newbie documentary filmmaker captured him playing Wes Montgomery licks while holding a guitar behind his neck, and stating that he was listening to John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. “My father was taking me to classes at Sonoma State University, where a college-aged friend named Ross, a great guitar player, gave me a cassette of Bill with Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron. It was incredible. Shortly after, I saw Bill play solo at Yoshi’s, acoustic. That’s about when I heard Jim Hall, who Bill was so connected to. My whole thing opened up.
“I met Bill at Newport at 17 when I was there with Gary Burton’s band. I approached him at the stage he was playing and said, ‘I’m Julian, I’m so sorry to bother you; I just want to say I’m a fan.’ And he was, of course, so gracious. He said, ‘Oh, I just heard you on the radio. You’re the new guy with Gary. It sounds great.’”
Frisell remembers first interacting with the younger guitarist in person in a Vancouver hotel lobby. “Julian had an old Gibson L5 with him,” he recalls. “He opened the case and I was like, ‘It’s the one like Mother Maybelle Carter played!’ We were geeking out on the instrument itself. I remember that’s where I felt like, ‘Man, I love this guy.’”
“Bill picked it up and played the most beautiful dissonant interval,” Lage adds. “I’d never seen anyone test the guitar with dissonance. It was so cool; like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know this guitar could do that.’ It was a 30-second master class of how to bring out the best in that guitar.
“To be fascinated with the guitar as an instrument and as an element in music also means being interested in it as an artifact, a really interesting machine. I think Bill and I recognize that a guitar player is one part of a relationship. There’s you, the musician, and then there’s the instrument, the amplifiers and any other piece of equipment — you add those together and hopefully get infinite possibilities. It’s the sum of its parts, the player and the object. That’s not to say you have to fetishize it or say it’s about the gear. But I think we’re both predisposed to think guitars are just cool, and also understand that they are the leader.” Frisell and Lage first played to an audience before a class at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. “It was a standard song, and it was effortless,” Frisell recalls. They again performed standards at several tributes to Jim Hall, a mutual mentor. In 2015, Frisell invited Lage — at 28, already a well-established bandleader with a half-dozen recordings to his name — to play a full evening of duos during a week’s run at The Stone, John Zorn’s performance space. Two years later, Lage reciprocated during his own week at The Stone. Not long thereafter, Lage and Frisell began to tour the duo.
By this time, Zorn — who has famously enfolded Frisell into his projects since the mid-1980s — was consequentially documenting Lage on his label, Tzadik. First he paired him with Gyan Riley on the two-acoustic-guitar albums Bagatelles, Midsummer Moons and The Book Beri’ah Vol. 4: Chesed. “Then John wrote something that very evidently required a third voice,” Lage recalls. That voice was Frisell’s, and the duo became a trio, with Frisell functioning within Zorn’s technically gnarly, rigorously composed pieces as, in his words, “an orchestrator or colorist” on Nove Cantici Per Francesco D’Assisi (2019), Virtue (2020), Teresa de Avila (2020), Parables (2020), and A Garden of Forking Paths (2021). In 2017, Zorn paired Lage with avant-metal guitarist Matt Hollenberg on Insurrection and Salem, 1692, prodding him further into realms of skronky edginess and sonic exploration that Lage first showcased publicly on two mid-’10s collaborations with Nels Cline. He projects similar expansiveness on New Masada Quartet (2021), on which Zorn plays alto saxophone on a fresh suite of across-the-genre-spectrum music with Lage, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Kenny Wolleson.
“Julian can play stuff that has never been humanly played on the instrument,” Frisell said. “Things I can’t comprehend. He’s taken musical ideas — contrapuntal or polytonal or harmonic things — and found ways of putting them on the guitar where it’s like, ‘What just happened there?’ But in my experience of playing with him, it’s never a showoff thing. It’s all done in the service of what the music in the moment is calling for. When we do those duos, there’s a joy factor. We get in this zone of heading out into territory where neither of us knows where it’s going to go. In those moments, I’m not thinking, ‘Wow, he just played something that’s impossible.’ It’s more like, ‘Wow, we just reached this new place.’
“I’ve most experienced that sort of technical astonishment when I’ve seen Julian play alone. On one of these three-guitar albums, John asked him to play an introduction that would lead us into a particular piece. Julian took musical material from the piece, and it was like, whoa.”
Lage describes Zorn’s three-guitar music as a “continuation” of his chamber music, specifically String Quartets #1 and #2 for the JACK Quartet (“some of the greatest string writing — highest level”). “It’s three lines intertwining,” Lage says. “Often it’s two guitars forming one texture and a third adding something, and then it switches. Speaking as a guitarist, when there are two players, each player is 100 percent of the equation; that’s a 200 percent all-hands-on-deck quality. When you go to three, often everyone gets neutered a bit, because you have to leave room. You’re not as free as a duo and not as big as an orchestra, so it can be an awkward number for guitars. John somehow doesn’t make it awkward. We’re each featured as improvisers, playing beautiful, complex melodic phrases. It’s a unique synthesis. John never obscures the integrity of the player’s voice. You don’t become anonymous with John’s music. You become more of yourself.
“John teaches me all the time that there’s something to be said for being pushed to your limits. That can elicit really great music — and it doesn’t mean you’re being gratuitous. Sometimes a risk factor enters the picture when I’m going for something challenging that maybe I once would have thought was immodest. Now I love it when it sounds like I’m about to fall off the cliff, and I can only get to the edge of the cliff if I push my capacity.”
Lage discusses Zorn’s impact on the compositions he wrote for View With a Room during the six months preceding the January 2022 recording date. “I look to Bill and John as compositional heroes,” he says. “One thing they do — which I’ve always been fond of and do myself — is to write everything by hand, pen and paper. When Zorn calls you for a record, you get every piece of sheet music for every song. It’s in sequence. It tells you the length. It tells you the tempo. You can hear it by looking at the sheets. I’ve interpreted that strategy with my own music. The band gets that stack of paper. It’s in order, all handwritten and clear.
“Structurally speaking, John is one of the world’s most imaginative composers. In addition to everything else, I’ve always tried to steal that part of it, so that every time you attack the piece it brings something out of the player. His writing always has a clear rhythmic spine that drives the whole thing, what I would call a clave, whether it’s centered around a 9/8 ostinato, or it’s just a 7, or it’s about a fast swing thing or a slow backbeat groove. John makes the rhythm and time — the tempo — integral to the music. On View With a Room, I was very clear that every song has its own clave. Even if multiple tunes share a beat, so to speak, or a groove, it’s not referencing the same source. On the trio tunes, ‘Heart Is a Drum’ is reminiscent of Now He Sings, Now He Sobs — the Roy Haynes swing feel. ‘Word for Word’ is more of a Mingus 3/4. ‘Castle Park’ is almost a Warne Marsh style medium 4/4 thing. All of them swing, but very distinguished. That’s a trait of Zorn’s that he’s impressed upon me, whether he knows it or not.”
At the end of our first conversation, I mention to Lage that Zorn’s application of spiritually themed titles to the guitar trio albums with Frisell and Riley. I observe that to investigate spirituality through the medium of notes and tones is the imperative that animates Charles Lloyd. (Lage first shared a bandstand with Lloyd at 12, has performed several concerts in Lloyd’s group in recent years, and plays with preternatural grace and fluidity on Lloyd’s November Blue Note release Trios: Sacred Thread with percussionist Zakir Hussain.) Does this quality apply to his own musical production?
“Their transmission of humanity is probably what I’m most attracted to about these artists,” Lage says. “At the core of all the music I love is transcendence, lifting a vibration that makes an impact and affects us spiritually and emotionally. The music Zorn and Charles write and play induces that kind of transcendence. That style of playing is cathartic. It’s a release. It’s risky. It gets the players on the edge of their seat, and a player on the edge of their seat can get into some special places.”
He segues to a phone call he made to Sonny Rollins “at the height of COVID,” when he asked the maestro: “Do you feel spirituality and music are the same thing? Is your path to music the same as your spiritual path?” Rollins responded: “They’re not the same thing, but they share a similar stage. Your spiritual development and your music development can work together. At the end of the day, you just really have to be a good guy.”
“It was so beautiful, it almost made me want to cry,” Lage says. “I felt him offering a different paradigm than I was looking at it through. I was struggling to fuse humanity and music together, and he gave me permission just to try to be a good guy and make music that you like. Don’t complicate it. This hearkens back to what I was saying about Bill. I’ve been so blessed to be around these figures who at very important times say, ‘You’re fine, you’re cool, you’re not missing something — you’re OK.’ I feel that’s true of all of us. My aim is to continue down that path, wherever it takes us, and keep that door wide open so that the music can have as much impact as possible on a spiritual level and on a human level. Just for myself.” - Ted Panken https://open.spotify.com/album/0bxXAO9Vxpx20fidIJc4va?si=B6aKwHUdSY2k-jQZWYMoWQ
Zorn on Lage
Musician and Tzadik label visionary John Zorn has frequently collaborated with Julian Lage. Here are his comments on the guitarist, submitted via email. Julian Lage is a natural musician with a fluidity on the guitar that is mind-blowing. There’s a direct connection between what he hears, feels and thinks and what he’s able to express with his fingers on the guitar. There is nothing that gets in the way — nothing between his conception and his execution. This is the ability of a master musician — a once-in-a-generation kind of musician. It is incredibly rare and incredibly inspiring.
Julian Lage has the soul of a poet. He is a soft-spoken, soulful, big-hearted cat who always puts the music first and foremost. His remarkable facility and encyclopedic knowledge are tempered by a deep and sincere humility. He is curious, open, imaginative and fearless. Always a positive force in any group he works with, his presence elevates any musical situation, with both his musical mastery and his positive persona. Julian Lage personifies the JOY of music.
Julian is so much more than a jazz player — what he does transcends genre of any kind and places his work into the world of pure music. He absorbs everything he hears like a sponge, processes it, transforms it, and when it comes out it has become a completely original statement — a music that is all his own.
He has inspired me to write some of the most beautiful (and complex) music I’ve ever written, and it is truly an honor to link my name with his. Julian Lage is the real deal and so much deeper than people realize. In the coming years, you’re going hear a lot from this man — and it’s very much worth your effort to seek him out and to dig deep into his musical poetics.
Featured photo by Noah Torralba.