Julian Lage Takes a ‘Page from the Rock ’n’ Roll Book’

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​Julian Lage’s trio album Modern Lore puts a postmodern twist on Americana.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

Lage highlighted producer Jesse Harris’ role in shaping the music in the studio. Encouraged by Harris, he said, “Atlantic Limited” underwent extensive trimming before arriving at its loping simplicity. On the other hand, Harris intervened on “Look Book” and “Pantheon” when Lage was headed toward multiple takes. Ultimately, Lage said, each of the 11 tunes on the album told the story he wanted to tell completely and concisely.

“As long as I could convey that dramatic arc,” he said, “I felt like it was edited enough and then I could move on.”

The record, he said, was not intended as a simple documentation of an unfettered live-in-studio performance. “I do feel like records and live shows are different,” he said. “I like this record because its songs work as well in the foreground as they do as a soundtrack. We definitely did that deliberately.”

In molding the sonic environment, he was not afraid of a little instrumental augmentation. Harris plays a Casio keyboard, maracas or acoustic guitar on five tunes, while Tyler Chester plays keys on six. The augmentation, Lage said, provided a cushion that he wasn’t getting from the electric guitar, bass and drums.

The trio, without Harris or Chester, covers a full range of frequencies on “The Ramble,” “Roger The Dodger,” “Whatever You Say, Henry” and, most pointedly, “Earth Science,” a fierce take on free-jazz riffing. Running just over two minutes, it is the shortest and most angular of tracks.

“It’s an instigator piece that gets you off to the races,” Lage said. “It’s a punctuation within this recording, meant to avert a sense that every song is a groove with a melody. And it foreshadows the direction of the songs in how they’re played live.”

For all his concentration on simplification, Lage hasn’t forgotten the value of conveying complexity at warp speed, particularly in a live context. On Arclight, the band interpreted “Persian Rug,” Neil Moret’s 1927 classic, at medium tempo. At Zankel Hall, it became a barn-burner, closing out the trio’s portion of the concert with a blistering statement.

The ramped-up “Persian Rug” served a larger strategy, contrasting starkly with Glaspy’s more contemplative songs and, in doing so, revealing a flair for juxtaposition—one that Lage has been nurturing since his youth, when he played with luminaries like Carlos Santana, Béla Fleck, Pat Metheny and Gary Burton.

His sense of drama might have even earlier points of reference, not least his starring role in Jules At Eight, which helped spark an intense, if transient, interest in writing for the cinema.

“I used to want to be a film composer growing up, until I got a sense of what that work entails,” he said.

Lage might balk at the thought of becoming involved in theater or film as such, but his onstage movements reveal an innate feel for the kinetic.

“It comes naturally,” he said. “I’ve been made conscious of it since I’ve been seeing myself on camera since I was young.

“I don’t think you have to be either stoic or animated, as long as it’s commensurate with the sound that’s coming out. It’s my nature to move that way or to smile—all the things that are my disposition.”

Having been in a spotlight for so long, Lage—who grew up in Santa Rosa, California—has clearly thought deeply about process, and devised ways to speak about it. But for all his ability to articulate his thoughts, he acknowledges a kind of mental block when it comes to assimilating words in a musical context.

“I have trouble understanding lyrics when they’re sung,” he said. “It’s like color blindness. If someone sings a song, I can usually not hear the lyric.”

Glaspy, who supplies most of the words for their collaborations, offered some perspective: “When he listens to a song, he doesn’t really hear the lyrics. It’s hilarious because it’s my living. But if Julian hears a lyric he doesn’t like, he may not be able to recite it to you, but he knows when it is not good. He’s kind of connected to the words subconsciously.”

That connection came through at Zankel Hall. If Glaspy’s theory about Lage’s subconscious is correct, he tapped into it deeply that night—providing backing for her idiosyncratic vocals that was sensitively conceived and shrewdly deployed.

Lage’s issues with lyrics provide an ironic subtext to other aspects of his musical life, notably his relationship with Hersch, who was nominated for a 2014 Grammy for Best Improvised Jazz Solo on, of all tunes, “Song Without Words #4,” which appeared on his Free Flying collaboration with Lage.

But for Lage, words, or the lack of them, were not his most pressing concern when, in 2011, he introduced himself to Hersch at a Starbucks in Boston and, in short order, faced the daunting prospect of stepping into the illustrious shoes of Hersch’s past duo partners. That those partners included guitarist Bill Frisell—who, with his judicious use of space, had seamlessly addressed the challenge of integrating the two chordal instruments—only raised the ante.

“Early on,” Lage said, “I had this feeling that I didn’t want to step on Fred. He’s such an orchestral piano player. The ‘If you play low, he plays high; if he plays high, you play low’ didn’t really work because he was playing low and high. So, I had to check myself before we made this record and say, ‘Play strong and if I crash right into him, so be it.’

“To my great delight that duo really took off, at least in terms of integrity, from my point of view, and I no longer had to walk on eggshells. The big issue was more rhythmic. If your sense of timing was not complementary, it would sound like you’re slamming all the time. I think of Fred and I as rhythmic collaborators, and then the tonal and harmonic aspect colors the whole situation.”

Hersch praised Lage for his “great rhythmic sense” and, more broadly, for his ability to “get into the flow.”

“On certain tunes,” Hersch explained, “I’ve learned to give him more space and on certain tunes, he’s learned to give me more space.

“A lot of times there aren’t even delineated solos. When we’re really going, it’s almost like one big instrument, this hybrid instrument. Sometimes, when we’re in the middle of it all, it’s hard to even know who’s playing what.”

Hersch said he had “only successfully played duo with three guitarists”—citing, in addition to Frisell, Gilad Hekselman, a contemporary of Lage’s whom he singled out for his sensitive use of electronics, and Lage.

Beyond their compatibility, the two musicians bonded over shared personal experiences. Hersch, who regained his ability to play after falling ill nearly a decade ago, recommended that Lage see his former teacher, the late pianist Sophia Rosoff, after the guitarist injured his left hand in 2013. Rosoff, Lage said, specialized in “repatterning your relationship to the music and allowing your musicality to follow.”

Diagnosed with the nerve disorder focal dystonia, he was unable to play for about a month and to perform for more than a year. The injury, he said, held up work on his first solo album, the World’s Fair (Modern Lore). But he continued writing and, after consulting doctors and other guitarists, recovered his playing form, releasing the acoustic album in 2015. In the end, he said, he abandoned the Segovia technique, in which “you essentially make your hand a cage,” for a method built around “a collapsing palm, playing on the pads of your fingers.”

For Lage, a keen appreciation of beauty dates to his childhood. Living in a blended family with five children headed by a father who was a visual artist and a mother who imparted Buddhist concepts, he was surrounded by objects and ideas that appealed to the senses. That milieu, he said, had a profound effect on his artistic development.

“Any approach I have to music,” he said, “I attribute to the way my parents think about aesthetics. It should be beautiful and it should feel good more than that it should be athletic or technically impressive.”

Modern Lore more than lives up to that creed; displays of raw chops are few and far between and are employed in service of the overall aesthetic. While that aesthetic doesn’t always manifest itself in the aural equivalent of fresh flowers and pastel sunsets—the album’s closer, “Pantheon,” a slightly disorienting dive into dissonant harmonics and shifting meters, traffics in darker hues—it is always clearly rendered.

Yet the clarity with which he renders the darker hues does raise a question. Is Lage signaling a melancholy side to his artistic personality? After all, a kind of wistfulness does surface in his conversation from time to time—especially when the subject of his youth arises.

Destined, apparently, to be known as a prodigy—introducing him at Zankel Hall, the emcee laid the label on him—he recalled a recent viewing of Jules At Eight, which concludes with Julian squeezing joyful lines out of a blues scale on Miles Davis’ “All Blues.”

“There are some things I felt I did better when I was younger,” he said. “I knew one scale and I played it with such conviction.” DB

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