Nels Cline is a major force as a guitarist and improviser, ever since he debuted on record in 1978 and as a leader in 1988. Named by Rolling Stone as one of 20 “new guitar gods” and one of the top 100 guitarists of all time, Cline has gained his widest fame as a member of acclaimed rock band Wilco since 2004. He’s known for a certain cranked-up experimental mayhem, the kind sometimes heard from his extraordinary trio the Nels Cline Singers, which released the well-received MACROSCOPE on Mack Avenue earlier in 2014. But throughout his career, Cline has undertaken projects, sometimes acoustic or semi-acoustic duos, highlighting an intimate and reflective approach that’s just as central to his artistry.

With ROOM, Cline returns to Mack Avenue, creating a world of melodic beauty but also hard sonic edges and technical brilliance in the company of Julian Lage. At just 26, Lage has taken the world of jazz guitar by storm. The New York Times hails the “disarming spirit of generosity” in Lage’s music and notes the young guitarist’s “roots tangled up in jazz, folk, classical and country music.” In addition to his work with Mark O’Connor, the late Jim Hall, Anthony Wilson and a great many others, Lage leads his own groundbreaking groups as documented on the albums Gladwell and Sounding Point (the latter earning Lage a Grammy nomination). 

In a 2013 Q&A with JazzTimes, Lage described the Cline-Lage duo sound as “200 percent power,” and that’s exactly what comes through on ROOM: an inspired collection of originals and collaborative pieces that run the full range from intricately composed and complex to free and spontaneous. Cline builds on the strength of his previous duo work with the likes of Vinny Golia, Zeena Parkins, Elliott Sharp, Thurston Moore, Carla Bozulich, Marc Ribot and not least of all the late West Coast bassist Eric Von Essen, to which the gorgeous dual-acoustic showcase “Whispers from Eve” is dedicated. Lage, for his part, has worked in duo settings with David Grisman, Martin Taylor, John Abercrombie, Taylor Eigsti and others.

Cline and Lage remain on acoustic guitars to end ROOM with “Calder,” a reference to the visionary sculptor Alexander Calder. “I have a Calder mobile that my mom sent me years ago when I moved back east,” Lage says. “It hangs in my apartment and I just love it. So though I wrote the tune first and the title came later, I felt like the presence of the mobile fit the mode of the piece well.”

On ROOM one hears two guitar masters who span the generations, comfortable in every conceivable role, meeting the daunting challenges of these compositions while giving themselves over to the moment. In the JazzTimes Q&A, Cline credited the duo for revitalizing his playing overall: “I was burned out on touring, burned out on myself…. And when Julian and I started playing together it kicked my ass hard. At the same time it inspired me and refreshed my soul.” Lage replied, “Likewise.”

Avalon, the first full-length album from guitarists Julian Lage and Chris “Critter” Eldridge is a vivid snapshot of this duo’s repertoire, circa 2014; a portrait of a burgeoning friendship between two virtuosic players; and, at its heart, a pristinely recorded love letter to the sound of the acoustic guitar. At the urging of fan and friend Kenneth Pattengale of The Milk Carton Kids, who served first as instigator and then as producer of this project, Lage and Eldridge spent two days last April recording live at a small gem of 1920’s theatre, the Avalon in Easton, Maryland, on the picturesque Eastern Shore. The pair culled 11 songs from its set – a mix of originals and covers that illustrate the breadth of the American songbook as Lage and Eldridge see it, incorporating bluegrass, country, gospel, old-time music and jazz. There was no playback, no overdubs, just the duo’s eloquent, in-the-moment musical repartee, all filtered through Pattengale’s discerning ear.

The prodigious Lage has, literally since childhood, been highly regarded in jazz and new music circles for his own work as well as for his collaborations with such artists as Gary Burton, Nels Cline, Fred Hersch, and Jim Hall, among many others. Eldridge is equally noted in the progressive bluegrass world for his stints with the Seldom Scene and the Infamous Stringdusters, which led to his joining Chris Thile’s adventurous, Grammy-nominated quintet, Punch Brothers. It was backstage after a Boston Punch Brothers gig that Eldridge met Lage, who’d come at the urging of Béla Fleck to meet with Chris Thile about a recording date. Among Lage’s most vivid memories of the evening was meeting Eldridge: “I had my guitar and he had his and I said, ‘Hey, you want to play something?’ It was little bit of love at first sight. I thought, this guy gets it. This guy has the same reverence for the acoustic guitar that I have and has such a perfect touch. It’s not overly muscular, it’s very elegant, very curious, it was just beautiful. And I was really moved.”

Eldridge returns the compliment: “I hadn’t heard him play before so those first couple of tunes were pretty mind-boggling. There was an instant friendship, both musically and personally. Though he is a few years younger than me, Julian is someone I really look up to. He represents everything I love about guitar playing and a lot of what I love about music. He’s a total guitar genius, really, but what’s more impressive is the tremendous humanity that Julian is working with. He uses these superhuman powers at the service of connection, of connecting on some kind of great human level. You can probably hear that in his playing. I know you can feel it playing music with him.”

After three years of texting, talking and jamming, the New York City-based pair decided to venture on stage together, with a gig at the small Brooklyn club, Barbès. But their duo project didn’t take off in earnest until they self-released a four-song EP, Close To Picture, in 2013. They were venturing into uncharted territory, beyond genre, reaching for a language of their own through the on-the-spot interplay of their guitars. Says Eldridge,

“The whole point was to explore sounds and textures that are uniquely possible on a flat-top steel-string guitar. Traditionally, these old Martin guitars, which are some of the most incredible instruments in the world, have been used for accompanying folk, bluegrass and country songs. There hasn’t been a lot of exploration of what they’re uniquely capable of, their particular rich tonal palate, what they have to offer to the world that other instruments don’t. That was the organizing principle when we were working on tunes a year and a half ago.”

The EP, Lage elaborates, “was kind of a grand experiment. Then Critter started singing more songs and we developed this show, all pretty accidentally, a ninety-minute survey of American acoustic music. It could be a Jimmie Rodgers tune, it could be a more esoteric instrumental original, or it could be a Seldom Scene bluegrass tune. But there’s a common thread. They all sound like us when we play them, and it’s pretty cool.”

Avalon indeed features songs by Jimmie Rodgers (“Any Old Time”), bluegrass legend Norman Blake (“Ginseng Sullivan”), Paul Craft (“Keep Me From Blowing Away,” originally recorded by the Seldom Scene), and George and Ira Gershwin (a lovely version of “Someone To Watch Over Me,” with a gentle, almost Chet Baker-like vocal from Eldridge). Lage also contributes three originals –“Wilson’s Waltz,” “Steady Proof” and “Stone Cross” that echo the approach of the earlier EP. Pattengale heard Lage and Eldridge perform at the 2014 edition of the Winter Grass Festival, held every February in Tacoma, Washington, and came to all four of their sets, entranced by the sound of their vintage Martin guitars. (Lage plays a 1939 000-18: Eldridge a 1937 D-18). As Lage recalls, “He was really excited. He said, you could just set up a microphone and do what you just did on stage.”

“All of a sudden we had a really enthusiastic cheerleader and guy with an idea in Kenneth,” continues Eldridge, “and we just followed it because we love Kenneth and trust him. And that’s how the whole thing happened. He said, ‘I know of this place, it sounds good, let me call and see if it’s going to be available.’ Kenneth, in addition to his considerable musical gifts, is just a badass at getting things done. So the next day, he calls us back: ‘We got it, the Avalon theatre. Here are the dates.”

The pair had just enough time between gigs to fit in the Avalon recording, says Eldridge: “It was really amazing that we did it. Julian and I had played a gig in Baltimore the night before. We drove over the next morning and when we got there, all the mics were already set up on stage, in the balcony, and in the room. Everything was ready to go. From the time we walked in the front door to when we recorded the first song was about five minutes.”

“Critter and I only had two days before having to return to our other lives so it was kind of Kismet,” decides Lage. “We proceeded to play down our set, maybe a couple of takes of each song, maybe five or six hours. There were no headphones, no playback; it was really old-fashioned. We just trusted Kenneth’s ears. If he said it was good, we moved on. After dinner we listened to all the tracks and decided we wanted to redo a few of them. So the next day we went back, we had three or four hours, we redid those and essentially that was the record. Very much done as documentation, no edits really.”

In his liner notes, says Pattengale, “the two disparate worlds of these two singular musicians push and pull at one another to create true harmony.” The result is an album that rewards the time it takes to listen all the way through, to this moment captured, this dialogue preserved, in which familiar songs become new again in the hands of these supremely gifted, intuitive players. All you have to do is trust your ears.


Arclight, Julian Lage’s Mack Avenue debut, marks his first recorded outing on electric guitar and in a trio format, backed by double bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Like that titular intense white light, Lage is a performer who burns brightly: The pace he sets is brisk, the mood often upbeat, the playing so quick-witted and offhandedly dazzling that one is compelled to immediately press “repeat,” especially when tracks like “Persian Rug” and “Activate” whiz by in under two and a half minutes. For a thoughtful artist like Lage, who will research and ruminate on a project long before he sets foot in a studio, this was a liberating experience, plugging in and playing with a kind of abandon. He was encouraged along the way by his producer and friend, the eclectic singer-songwriter Jesse Harris, who helped maintain an air of spontaneity and discovery throughout the trio’s three-day stint at Brooklyn Recording.

Lage has long been heralded for his virtuosic ability as an acoustic guitarist. In fact, he was well known in musician circles as a guitar prodigy, whose early genius was captured in a 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary short, Jules At 8.  As an adult, he’s fulfilled the promise of his extraordinary youthful talent. The New Yorker’s Alec Wilkinson declared, “He is in the highest category of improvising musicians, those who can enact thoughts and impulses as they receive them.” Nate Chinen of the New York Times called Lage “one of jazz’s breezier virtuosos, possessed of an unflappable technical facility and a seemingly boundless curiosity.” After independently releasing a solo acoustic set of largely original material called World’s Fair in 2014, that curiosity prompted Lage to reconsider the electric guitar, specifically a Fender Telecaster – “the most refined embodiment of the modern guitar,” as he puts it.

“The Telecaster has been around for more than 60 years,” says Lage, “and it’s still so present. I took that as a parameter: Arclight focuses on my love of the electric guitar, specifically the Telecaster.  And even more specifically, it’s centered on a jazz trio. It’s basically a realization of this recessive obsession I’ve had for a long time, but had never followed. I wanted to do songs that I feel maybe fell through the cracks for me when I was growing up, but now feel like a brand new kind of music.”

Though up to now Lage has largely recorded and performed original material, he wanted to explore his interpretive skills on Arclight, concentrating on music from the early to mid-20th century, “jazz before be-bop.” This was a period that had also inspired his composing for World’s Fair. As he did then, Lage consulted Brooklyn-based guitarist, banjo player and music scholar Matt Munestiri, who had already pored over the more obscure pages of the American Songbook. Explains Lage, “I had this conundrum. I was looking for minor songs and slightly more melancholy music from the twenties. Matt sent me about 20 songs that ranged from Willard Robison to Sidney Bechet to Jack Teagarden, Bix Biederbecke and Spike Hughes, a British band leader who had a recording of a song called ‘Nocturne’ that ended up on our record. He nailed this melancholy zone of jazz that I felt was kind of forgotten. It was really poignant, melodic music that had a quirk to it. I think of it as the pre-be-bop generation, when country music and jazz and swing were in this weird wild-west period. “

Along with ‘Nocturne,’ Lage tackled W.C. Handy’s “Harlem Blues,” a Gus Kahn-Neil Moret piano roll number called “Persian Rug,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which starts off tenderly but gives way to a lively improvisational mid-section before finding its way back to the gentle, classic melody. The rest of the album consists of originals, which, notes Lage, “celebrate the other period I’m obsessed with, the Keth Jarrett American quartet period, an improvisational jazz era that had such a rich connection to songs and to folk music. This was the concept for the album.”

Playing a Telecaster is also an affectionate nod to Lage’s childhood: When he was four years old, his dad, a visual artist, had made him a plywood guitar, based on a Fender Esquire he’d traced from a Bruce Springsteen poster. Lage “played” that guitar until his dad bought him a real electric guitar a year later and they started practicing blues progressions and improvisation together. Similarly, Lage’s all-star rhythm section on Arclight recalls the sounds, the bands and the gigs that inspired him as a young musician. Lage remembers seeing Colley and Wollesen at famed Bay Area jazz club Yoshi’s, backing his hero, the late guitar icon Jim Hall, as well as his early mentor, Gary Burton: “I would go to these shows, sit up front, put my head on the stage and watch.  They were the most formative jazz guitar experiences of my life. And they were with these guys. I didn’t specifically intend to reassemble that dream crew but then I thought I had a chance, why not call them? I love them, I know their sounds; they would get my vision. And that’s what tied everything together. This was not only a band where I could get to play all this stuff that I’ve come up with, this is band of people I love listening to. And that was so refreshing coming from the solo guitar thing, which was a very personal quest to build a solid individual foundation of music on the guitar. “

Jesse Harris became both observer and arbiter as the sessions unfolded, an invaluable role. While Lage would perceive a take as merely the first in a series, Harris, as Lage recounts, would say: “’That’s it! Do you hear the spirit, the narrative, the build? Do you see how you struggle there but nail it here? That’s the ebb and flow.’ I absolutely loved it. This was very different than the solo guitar record, where I felt as though only I knew when it was done. I was outnumbered on this one, and by all my favorite people and musicians. Arclight also has a spirit to it, this raucous energy, a thing that I felt was so strongly connected to this music and this band.  There was a concept, a philosophy, a tonal palette, but that kind of energy, that almost dance-band vibe – Jesse could see it a mile away. It was so much fun to turn it up loud in the studio, and feel the music that way.”

Concludes Lage, “I feel like I’ve been on this very focused mission to make certain things a part of my musical life, and the electric guitar was one of the things that was missing. I’m very excited to share this. “ 

-- Michael Hill

World’s Fair, Julian Lage’s first solo guitar album, is so spontaneous and intimate in feel that it’s as if this prodigious guitarist had just arrived in your living room, picked up his vintage Martin, and simply started to play. It’s very much a project created in the moment, a dozen acoustic guitar tracks recorded over the course of a mere two days, at Sear Sound in New York City. In concept, however, World’s Fair was more than a year in the making, as Lage gradually came to embrace the rich musical and emotive possibilities within the austere format of one musician and one acoustic guitar.

“I always had a fantasy about doing a solo guitar project," Lage explains, “especially one that highlighted various orchestrational aspects of guitar playing and guitar techniques, drawing from the structure of the three to four minute song, pieces that did not depend as much on improvisation but on moods, or musical attitudes. At first, when I was writing this music, I kind of overlooked the sonic and emotional impact of one guitar, trying to find ways to make it sound more robust or like a full ensemble. But then I started recording and I discovered what a rare opportunity this was for me to recalibrate my senses to one instrument and within that recalibration learn to savor the vast world of intimacy and nuance, both qualities so inherent to the guitar.”

The album title is a clue to Lage’s intentions, the phrase conjuring up a bygone hopeful vision of the future, a “tragic optimism,” in Lage’s words, since the future never quite turned out as the presenters at those grand expositions had predicted. The understated beauty of these tracks is laced with a certain melancholy, especially on the ruminative opening cut “40s” or when Lage gently delivers a spare rendition of Rogers and Hart’s “Where Or When.” World’s Fair seems suspended in time, using the past as a reference, yet seeming somehow daring and contemporary in its unadorned arrangements and unabashed melodicism. The mood is often contemplative but, on tracks like “Peru” and “Red Prairie Dawn,” he kicks the tempo up a notch, with his fingers scampering quickly across the strings.

While conceiving of and recording World’s Fair, Lage was inspired by the orchestral approach to the guitar of the great Andres Segovia and by the music of the early 20th Century, of “jazz before be-bop”: “There is this era that is like the wild west, when there were jazz songs that were popular tunes and virtuosic, that had incredible lyrics, from writers like Willard Robison or Hoagy Carmichael.” He found a similarly unbound spirit in the early seventies work of singer-songwriters like Randy Newman, who managed to incorporate a sophisticated range of ideas into the concise pop-song format: “It was hard to pin down what it was, but the music felt so true to itself, completely fresh and yet you couldn’t imagine a time when it didn’t exist.” He was drawn, in other words, to sounds that were both challenging and pleasing — work, much like his own, that defies easy categorization.

Though still in his twenties, Lage has already enjoyed a remarkable, genre-crossing career. As the New York Times has put it, Lage is an artist whose roots are “tangled in jazz, folk, classical and country music.” A child guitar prodigy, he was the subject of the 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary short, Jules at 8. He made his first recording, with David Grisman, at the age of 11 and subsequently caught the notice of the world at large when he appeared alongside Gary Burton at the 2000 Grammy Awards. His first recording as a leader, 2009’s Sounding Point, garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Up to now, collaboration has been essential to Lage’s process; he has toured and/or recorded with such artists as Burton, Nels Cline, Fred Hersch, and Jim Hall, who was a major influence on the young Lage. His most recent project is Room, a live-in-the-studio exchange with experimental guitarist Cline. Earlier this year, he released Avalon, a duo recording with fellow guitarist Chris “Critter” Eldridge (of Punch Brothers) that surveyed the American Songbook with an easygoing virtuosity. After seeing that pair in concert performing songs from Avalon, New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson noted that Lage’s playing “is cerebral, and sometimes playful, but because his vocabulary is so expansive, it is also riveting… he is in the highest category of improvising musicians, those who can enact thoughts and impulses as they receive them.”

Though Lage alone performs on Worlds Fair, the project is also, in a sense, a collaboration: he enlisted two long-time musician colleagues, the jazz guitarist Matt Munisteri and the multi-instrumentalist Armand Hirsch, as, respectively, his co-producer and engineer-mixer. Munisteri offered extensive knowledge of the early 2oth Century music that was captivating Lage, and served as a discerning ear throughout. Hirsch brought technical innovation and an adventurous soul to the recording itself.

“We had a year to figure out the sonic fingerprint of the album,” says Lage. “The whole aesthetic is derived from early Segovia. There is an upfront quality to the sound that is almost surreal, like you’re kneeling down in front of a guitar and listening to it. Most of the time when you hear an acoustic guitar it’s been saturated and diffused into the walls. With one recorded source, we wanted the image to be as wide as possible without being goofy. That immediacy and all encompassing quality was something they got so well with those early radio-style recordings.

Being in front of Hirsch’s mic set-up with just himself and his guitar was, says Lage, “like a psychological marathon. If I were doing something like Avalon with Critter or doing a trio session, I would be bouncing off of people in a certain way. You play, you let your mind wander, you listen to the other person, come back to yourself. But this was so focused on the role of the guitar that the quality that took precedence was a sense of losing yourself in the music. I had to forget where I was, to not worry if I was playing good or bad, fast or slow. None of it mattered. What seemed to transfer to tape was the degree to which I could lose myself — and sound like I was grateful for the opportunity. When I tried to nail it and get it right, I would inevitably be stuck in a paradigm I couldn’t get out of. We had two days to make this record so the takes we used are the ones in which I felt the most reckless, and kind of let the sound of guitar swallow me up."

- Michael Hill