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.”
On Mount Royal, their second album together, Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge craft songs that sound familiar but are never easily classified. Percolating with tinges of bluegrass and folk, insinuations of jazz and pop, hints of classical and avant garde composition, the album rarely settles into any one particular category; rather, it dances around the territory between genres, never announcing its innovations and prizing soulfulness above chops at every turn. From first note to last, the duo push themselves to find new ways to play their flat-top steel-string acoustic Martins together.
“Playing with Jules, it feels like anything is possible,” says Eldridge. “You have no constraints. There’s just so much room to move around. It’s like playing in a sandbox, which really opens you up to being more creative.” Adds Lage: “Our rapport is based on the idea that we’re researchers studying this idea of what two acoustic guitars can do together, how you can integrate that into instrumental songwriting and how you can reconcile that with vocal music. Our collaboration is like a big research project that’s been going on for years.”
Lage is a renowned jazz guitarist who has collaborated with a range of musicians—Nels Cline, Gary Burton, and Fred Hersch, to name a few. According to the New Yorker, he belongs “in the highest category of improvising musicians, those who can enact thoughts and impulses as they receive them.” Eldridge is a veteran of the bluegrass world, cutting his teeth in the legendary outfits the Seldom Scene and the Infamous Stringdusters before anchoring Punch Brothers, an acoustic supergroup that combines folk instrumentation with pop and experimental songcraft. When they play together, however, they do not represent the genres or styles with which they have long been identified. “It’s not the United Nations,” laughs Lage. “It’s not like I’m the jazz representative and he’s the bluegrass representative. We could care less about that.” Instead, they make music simply as friends and individuals who happen to have unique ideas and techniques.
After meeting and jamming backstage at a Punch Brothers show, the two became fast friends and eventually started playing shows together. Their chemistry was undeniable, each pulling the other out of his comfort zone. “Bluegrass can be very empirical,” says Eldridge. “Things can be right or wrong. But that’s not the way it works with us. It’s all about ‘yes and…’ which is an improv comedy technique. No matter what someone says, you say, ‘yes and…’ and you build on that. You move forward.” In 2013 they released an EP of original songs, followed quickly by their debut album, Avalon, which was modeled after their live shows. “It’s a sophisticated guitar LP that doesn’t sound sophisticated,” Pitchfork gushed, “an effort that folds its intense erudition deep beneath its lovely surface.”
For Mount Royal, they wanted to do something different—something less grounded in their live show, something more exploratory and innovative. “These songs are experiments,” says Lage. “They are things we maybe always wanted to hear but hadn’t heard done yet. So we did them ourselves. We made this record for ourselves.” Those experiments were rooted in the songwriting process, during which they gave each other prompts and exercises. Each would sequester himself alone in a room with maybe an hour to brainstorm a handful of songs, armed only with a pre-war Martin acoustic—Lage’s 1939 000-18 and Eldridge’s 1937 D-18.
“There was a lot of wide-open creativity,” says Eldridge. “We would put ourselves under a lot of pressure, which can really force things out of you that might not emerge if you had time to belabor it.” They would share the results with each other, toying around with good ideas and jettisoning scraps of melody that led nowhere. Says Lage: “We would improvise an idea for thirty minutes, record that, and see how we could intuitively develop the material. Then we would sleep on it and see if it worked the next day. A lot of stuff didn’t work.”
But a lot of stuff did work. Scraps of melody or rhythm blossomed into intricate and disarmingly beautiful songs, leading the duo in directions they never would have gone by themselves. On “Bone Collector” the steadiness of Eldridge’s tight, staccato strumming provides the propulsion for Lage’s pointillist fretwork, while the epic “Everything Must Go” hinges on a rushing fanfare that comes out of nowhere to transform the song. Their guitars sound like pianos on “Lion’s Share,” which Lage describes as an “excuse for us to inhabit a space that’s very constant, very melodic, and a little bit weird.”
Most of Mount Royal is instrumental, just two guitars traipsing across new territory, but three vocal tracks—all covers, all sung by Eldridge—made their way onto the album. Their interpretation of the bluegrass chestnut “Things in Life” is spirited and vigorous, as is the duo’s take on the motor-mouthed John Hartford obscurity “Mississippi Valley.” Perhaps the most surprising cover is “Sleeping By Myself,” which Lage discovered on Eddie Vedder’s 2011 album Ukulele Songs. “We needed something outside of the traditional acoustic vocabulary to feature his voice in a very specific way,” says Lage, “so we looked outside the traditional world.”
Eldridge admits he was initially dubious: “My first thought was, ‘A ukulele record? By Eddie Vedder? Hmm….’ But it’s an amazing record. And that song sounds like something from the Great American Songbook.” As he laments an empty bed and a lonely night, the two guitars collapse into what sounds like only one, reinforcing the romantic seclusion of the lyric and spotlighting Eldridge’s quietly affecting vocals.
Ultimately, every note and every melody, every riff and rhythm on Mount Royal serves the song. In that regard the album sounds ascetic yet lush, modest yet incredibly accomplished, experimental but focused on something beyond the players themselves. It’s an approach that has given them a new understanding of their chosen instruments: “A guitar can be like an orchestra,” says Eldridge. “It really is a polyphonic instrument. It can be percussive or lyrical. Exploring those ideas with Jules, it really felt like the opportunity for expression and exploration was infinite.”
Adds Lage: “We came at it with the idea, ‘what skills can these songs teach us that we wouldn’t have learned otherwise?’ To share that experience with someone you love as a friend is a great privilege.”
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