In the late 1990s, while working at the Last Record Store in Santa Rosa, I started to take notice of a soft-spoken, articulate customer who came in each week to buy a different jazz CD. His earnest love of the music was unfaltering; I still remember his anticipation upon buying Everybody Digs Bill Evans, and how his eyes lit up when we discussed the sublime qualities of individual tracks the week afterward.
This was a common enough experience at the record store, except this customer was only 10 years old. He sometimes had a guitar case with him. He was smart, curious, and frequently funny when discussing music. His name was Julian Lage.
In the years since, Lage has performed on the Grammys, recorded with Gary Burton, been nominated for a Grammy Award for his debut album, and played with a who's-who of jazz greats. Now 27 and living in New York, Lage is currently attracting even more attention in an inspired duo with avant-garde jazz guitarist and Wilco member Nels Cline.
Before this week's show with Cline at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, I caught up with Lage on the phone to talk about the curse of the "child prodigy" tag; the balance of technique and emotion; the lessons he's learned playing with Cline; the other music he's listening to and other projects on the horizon.
By now, you've outgrown the “child prodigy” tag, but I know it followed you around for years. Did it bother you, being labeled as a child prodigy for so long?
No, not at all. With descriptions like “child prodigy,” it says way more about the people who use it than the subject, usually. That was always the way I looked at it. And it took a lot of pressure off, because it was actually just a really nice compliment. Now, when I see young children playing at a certain level, I go, "Wow. You're so little but you're doing something an adult does." So I can appreciate the bewilderment that one might have, and if they call it “prodigies,” fine. It didn't come with any pressure. I suppose it could come with a stigma, where you say, "Oh God, that's not all of me, that's just a title." Truth be told, I think people were just being real nice to me.
When you were younger, I remember selling you Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery CDs at the record store...
I remember buying them from you!
When you were exploring all these older jazz musicians, did you have any peers to talk to about them, anyone at your school? I guess what I'm asking is, did you ever feel like a social outcast?
Yeah, totally! But I didn't know any differently. When I was listening to jazz and getting into it, a lot of the reason I liked it was because no one else was into it. I hear a lot of people talk about this with regard to punk. I loved it because no one did know about it. My parents knew about it, my teachers did, but it was my little secret. I sometimes think that if I were around young people who were equally intuitive, or played guitar in the same way, I might have thought, "Well, okay. It's already covered. I'll go do something else."
So in a way, it was your own method of going against the grain.
Totally. I did feel a little out of place, but I just favored that. In a real simple way, it was like, "Yeah, I love all these old jazz guys. This is great. This is my little world."
Something that young players get dogged with, also, is an assumption that they're just studying scales and music theory, and there's no real emotional depth to their playing. But as long as I've seen you play, there always has been an emotional depth there. Jazz musicians, in particular, talk about this transcendental state of playing where it's not mental anymore. You're not thinking about theory anymore, you just become a conduit for the music.
Has that always happened to you? Was there a specific moment you can recall when it first happened?
Wow, such a good question. I don't know, is the answer. I don't really know. I literally dove into the technical side of things. For me, if there was something I heard and I liked it, if there was a way to describe it technically like, "Oh, the reason it had this impact is because this particular player did this particular thing with this particular scale," I'd think, "Hallelujah!" That means there's a way, that I have a chance of getting there.
I, at least, thought there was a lot of natural beauty to the technical side of theory. I didn't feel like, "Oh, I need to do that, and then get rid of it so that I can reveal getting more emotional." I think I was emotionally charged about the components of the music.
You always want to catch yourself if you're just living in an analytical realm and you're not able to really connect with people musically. That can be a drag. It's a very natural trap if you're a student, because you get better and better, hopefully, and then you go, "Oh wow. I kind of have more resources than I need to play a good song. I forgot." Now, it's just about being smart about it.
That makes sense—that technical chops and emotional expression aren't mutually exclusive.
And it wasn't anything I consciously have done. All my favorite players, though, when I think of Jim Hall, or Bill Frisell, or Nels, or whomever, these are guys who can play one note and they could just knock you out... the same way I feel like Neil Young or James Taylor could. That's the goal.
You mentioned James Taylor and Neil Young, two non-jazz musicians, which reminds me, you and Taylor Eigsti went through a phase of posting all these goofy metal videos on each other's MySpace pages for a while...
What? You remember that?!
It was so hilarious. They were so over-the-top ridiculous. But you also made this folky record with Chris Eldridge recently. What sort of non-jazz music are you listening to these days?
Playing with Nels, I've basically become a giant Wilco fan. I didn't know much about Wilco. Just as a music fan, I've been really just nerding out on The Whole Love and, of course, all their older stuff. Just going through it and checking out Jeff Tweedy's scene and the different transformations the band has had.
I basically listen to The Harrow and the Harvest on repeat, which is Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. That's always playing. I was listening to a lot of Great American Songbook type stuff—old Billy Strayhorn, old Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra—and digging some of that. I was actually just at the record store and I bought some vinyl because my mom bought me a record player for my birthday, which was awesome. I got the Concert for Bangladesh on vinyl; I'm obsessed with Jim Keltner and had been for a while. Anything he's on is good. Oh, and Fiona Apple's newest record! The second that came out, I was pretty much glued to it.
I try to take whatever is on and find something that's intriguing about it.
When did you and Nels first meet?
I had met Nels at a show he did at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, probably, I don't know, 11 years ago, opposite Charlie Hunter. I was there to see Charlie. I even got to the show late, so I went and saw Nels with the Singers for a second. It was very brief. Then, fast-forward to three years ago, we met through Jim Hall and a friend, Brian Camelio, who is Jim's best friend and would help to organize these luncheons once a month for Jim to get him out of the house.
Jim was a block away from this place called French Roast, and Nels lives on the block of French Roast. We'd been hearing about, "You've got to be here for when Nels comes by,” but he was always on tour with Wilco and I never saw him for about a year. Weirdly enough, the opposite was true: he would hear them talking about me for about a year! "Oh, you've got to be here when Julian's here. You guys would hit it off."
We finally met about three years ago, and we did hit it off. He said, "Why don't you come to the house and play some guitars?" Either that day or the next day, we started playing.
I interviewed Jim Hall once, before the show you opened for him in Healdsburg, and I asked him about playing with Bill Evans. He said, "You know, it was as if Bill were inside my brain." Do you have a similar sensation when you're playing with Nels?
I think so, or what I could imagine that to mean. It's almost silly. Nels is a Capricorn, I'm a Capricorn. We both have a very similar demeanor, but different kind of expressions of it. There's a certain degree of... I think trust is part of it, but I just feel like he's one of the most reliable individuals, and in the capacity that we play, so free. It's a rare thing to have someone that's so reliable, but who you never know what they're going to do next.
It's not even like reliably unhinged. He's in my brain in the best possible way. I just don't worry about him. I just sit there in awe and go, "Wow. You're really good."
What's the main thing you've learned from playing with Nels?
It's one thing to play with a player who's a brilliant, hot-shot player where 10 out of 10 times they nail it when they do this one thing. That's great. Whereas Nels has this thing where there's no way you can fail. I think it has lots to do with the degree which he's okay with himself, and the degree to which he's generous with his whole experience. There can be the moments where you go for something and you totally nail it, or you go for something and then there's a sea change and you end up switching gears.
I guess being around him more and more, I realize that, "Yeah. We can just play." It doesn't have to be successful in a certain way. You just have to show up and own it. That can be the ugliest sounds, that can be beautiful sounds, and everything between.
The funny part is when I was a teenager, I was playing with Randy Vincent and George Marsh, and we had this free-ish ensemble. More avant-garde playing was really a part of my growing up, but it wasn't what I did in public as much. Then, with Nels, he had this way of legitimizing that world for me. We would play, and I'd think, "You mean we can just do what we're doing in your house, but do it for people?" He's such a confident performer and such a pro. I think that's what I've learned. A lot of the power of that music is... You want to see how the performer tackles it. You want to see them struggle, you want to see them win, or lose, or whatever. It's okay to go for it and just own it. Nels is the best at that.
You've got these shows with Eric Harland at SFJAZZ coming up. Tell me a little bit about your musical rapport with him.
Eric and I, we've been playing together since I was about 17, so it's about 10 years. Eric's this spiritual musical force of nature. A lot of the stuff we do with his band will be based on flow, in the sense where we'll play a set—might be six songs, more or less, and we pretty much connect them, late Miles Quintet-style.
My role is ever-changing with that band. Sometimes I'll have loop pedals and I'll be just basically making textures. Other times, I'll be mainly a melody player. I have pretty much free reign. And, I have the best seat in the house because I'm usually standing right there just watching Eric. I'm really, really lucky to be in that project.
You've also got a new solo record coming out, World's Fair. You once said you always had a fantasy about making a solo guitar record like this. What other dreams-come-true would you like to see in the future?
I have this secret electronica project called Machine Sorry. It's borne out of musique concrète-style electronica, so it's more collage-based and more glitch bass rhythms. I've only done one show with it, at the Stone in New York last year. That's been brewing forever, and I'd love to make a record with that.
I want to make a trio record, a jazz trio record. I want to do another solo guitar record, and then a different solo guitar record; one would be all standards, one would be one long, free piece, about 45 minutes. Then I also have some other things that I'm working on. Projects are always on their way.