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Jazz Guitarist Julian Lage On 'Arclight' And Shifting Musical Genres


This is FRESH AIR. Our next guest, jazz guitarist Julian Lage, has had a successful two-decade career in the music business, which is kind of remarkable considering that he's only 28 years old. Lage was a child prodigy. He began playing guitar at the age of 5, appeared on stage at The Grammys at 13 and was a member of vibraphonist Gary Burton's band at 16. He was also the subject of a short documentary when he was 8, appropriately titled "Jules At Eight." At the time, Lage was playing jazz and blues with older musicians. Here's a clip of Lage speaking in that documentary.


JULIAN LAGE: Most people that are not musicians feel whenever somebody plays the blues they really have the blues. I mean, lots of them sound like they have been - had things in their life if they're good musicians because lots of people have good feeling for their instrument.


LAGE: A long time ago, Robert Johnson has the blues. Now, Buddy Guy plays for thousands of people. I mean, he does not have the blues. He just has very much soul into his instrument.

GROSS: That's Julian Lage when he was 8 years. He's since recorded with Gary Burton, David Grisman and Fred Hirsch and released albums under his own name. He's also recorded duets, exploring the avant-garde with guitarist Nels Cline and bluegrass and traditional music with guitarist Chris Eldridge. Lage has a new trio album called "Arclight" with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen, featuring Lage on electric guitar. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with a track from "Arclight" called "Fortune Teller."


SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That's the tune "Fortune Teller" from the new album "Arclight" by my guest Julian Lage. Julian, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LAGE: Thank you so much, Sam, great to be here.

BRIGER: So it sounds like you're really having a lot of fun on this album and you decided to use an electric guitar for this. You actually use one of the oldest in production kinds of guitars, the Fender Telecaster and you sort of forgo the more traditional jazz guitar sound. Why did you want that very electric sound for this?

LAGE: Well, I grew up playing, you know, Stratocaster, a Paul Reed Smith, and my very first guitar when I was - before I played was a piece of plywood that was cut in the shape of a Telecaster by my father. It was a trace from a poster of Bruce Springsteen's Esquire, which is basically like a Telecaster-style guitar. The electric guitar was always so fascinating to me, and my guitar heroes played it, you know, people like Stevie Ray Vaughan or, you know, Clapton or whatnot - Muddy Waters.

BRIGER: So most of the songs on this album are originals, but you've chosen to cover a few songs from the first half of the 20th century. You've said you wanted to pick some, quote, "pre-bebop songs." Why was that era interesting to you?

LAGE: I think there's something that that era, specifically the teens and the '20s and the kind of early '30s, you know, before things got kind of codified and slick and refined. There was this thing where you kind of couldn't tell if it was country, if it was ragtime, if it was - you know, if these were the seeds of bebop, if they were showtunes. It's very hard to pin down, much like how I feel with a lot of popular music today.

BRIGER: You've said that a lot of these songs from that period have these, like, weird harmonies and, like, that they're using these cowboy chords. And you also say that these kinds of harmonies might be frowned upon today by jazz purists. But so could you demonstrate what you mean by cowboy chords and also maybe, like, how that compares to, like, say, a more accepted jazz harmony?

LAGE: Absolutely. OK, so let's see. There's a song called "Harlem Blues" that we do on the record and it's written by W.C. Handy. And the original version is more or less kind of traditional, harmonically speaking. But the arrangement we do is basically taken from Willard Robison. And Willard Robison was one of these great American composers. He wrote "Old Folks," "Lazy Bones," which was kind of a super, super hit in the sheet music world back in the day. And he did these things that I consider kind of cowboy chord moves and cowboy chords being these kind of chords (playing guitar) big, open, kind of expansive triads. But what's different and what makes them kind of weird - he would play the cowboy chord that goes in the song but he would play it, like, of off, maybe off by a half step or something, just enough of a shift that you - it kind of tugs on your ear a little bit.

So in the bridge or the B section of this - "Harlem Blues" - let's see. It goes (playing guitar). That's kind of the airy, opened version. The Willard Robison thing is (playing guitar). So it's that - this one kind of weird chord out of place that caught my attention (playing guitar). And it's - it lasts only for a second. It only stings for a minute and then you're back into the kind of tonal side of things. But I think that slippery approach to basically fundamental harmony is what is so attractive to me. And there's some other examples throughout the thing where - let's see. What's another one (playing guitar)? It goes (playing guitar). There's a certain bluntness to this kind of parallel motion of the triads.

Now, conversely, what you get maybe just, I don't know, a decade or so later - 10, 15, 20 years later - is a refined elegance that's built around two-five-ones, three-six-two-five-ones. These are all, like, cadences that kind of smooth over any harsh details, those kind of funny, like - I don't know - jabbing parts came a little bit more in the way of a passing chord. So whereas Willard Robison just very bluntly goes (playing guitar) and then back to the normal harmony, I think a lot of that later stuff had more to do with kind of interstitial stuff like (playing guitar) - do you know - where it moves a little bit and there's always a - it's like these are connecting chords. They wouldn't so boldly just throw in a weird chord.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Right.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with guitarist Julian Lage. He has a new album called "Arclight." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with guitarist Julian Lage. Lage has a new album called "Arclight."

BRIGER: One of my favorite tracks on this album is your version of the song "Nocturne." And I wanted to play a little bit of both the original version of the song from 1933 and your version. But first what can you tell us about this song and why you chose to do it?

LAGE: Well, it's a beautiful song that stood out to me because at least on the original recording - the first chorus of the song treats the - the first chord is a minor chord - this (playing guitar). It starts on this minor chord, and songs from that era, it's very hard to find things that - songs that weren't major, that weren't happy, that weren't just total dance music, you know? And I thought, wow, that is so cool to have something that starts moody. Now, the irony is - that's only the first chorus. You know, I think there's three choruses on the original version. The next two choruses, it always starts with a major chord (playing guitar). So it becomes the song that I was kind of avoiding, you know? But they gave a glimpse of it with that opening chorus. I thought that is so cool.

BRIGER: Well, let's hear just a little bit of the original version by Spike Hughes, and then we'll fade that out and hear your version from your new album "Arclight." So this is "Nocturne."


BRIGER: That sounds great. So that's the original version and Julian Lage's version of the song "Nocturne." And Julian Lage is my guest. He has a new album called "Arclight." I really like - it feels like you've - you really slowed down the song a little bit and sort of made it feel kind of lazy. I don't know. It just seems like a great interpretation.

LAGE: Well, thank you. It was such a no-brainer because when you play it on the guitar it lends itself to this kind of slow hand, just easy - very kind of - I don't know how to say it. You have all the time in the world kind of style of guitar playing, which allows for a lot more inflections, like vibrato or slide-ups or other things. So, you know, if expression is the name of the game with this record, this was kind of a perfect opportunity to show that.

BRIGER: So any article about you brings up the fact that you were a child prodigy. You seem to have such tenacity as a 5-year-old to pursue this passion of yours. And it just makes me wonder what - I mean, a lot of people fall in love with the guitar. But what was it about the guitar that spoke to you so deeply?

LAGE: I think it's because my dad played it. You know, really simply put - my father picked up the guitar only a year before I did. He had played a little bit as a young man, but really it was kind of like something to do with my father. And I have three sisters and a brother, all who are older. And they had the opportunity to play guitar and do stuff, but they had other interests that took them deeply into, you know, all different worlds. So in a way it was just excuse to kind of hangout and do something my dad was interested in.

LAGE: It seems like both of your parents really helped enable your passion for guitar. Your dad is doing a lot of the heavy work there. He's driving you to all these places. He's taking you to lessons. He also says that he home late at night, and he would practice the guitar - practice what you were learning - so he would learn it well enough so you guys could play together.

LAGE: Right.

BRIGER: And essentially there's a nice balance there. Like, your parents seem very conscientious about not exploiting your talents in any way but just allowing you to develop them.

LAGE: Well, you hit the nail on the head totally. I mean, I think, my father - it's so sweet because he to me is one of the absolute greatest guitar players ever who doesn't really play guitar. And I say that because the way he thinks about it, the way he perceives it, you know, he was kind of - he's always been - and to this day really is - kind of my best coach. I'd be in a situation and my father would kind of be observing it, and then he would offer help that was so spot on but not coming from the point of view of actual guitar playing.

One of the first times I recorded, I think I was 6 or 7, and it was playing on a demo of a song that some older musicians in the Santa Rosa area, they were recording and they wanted a guitar solo. And I was friends with them and they wanted - they were just being very generous. They said come over and play. And so I go in and I overdub the solo, and I'm sitting in the room. It's the blues - whatever - something simple. And basically I'm playing way too much, you know, I just don't know when to really stop. I just keep moving my fingers and then the song stops and I keep going, and it's really awkward. And the producer is trying to be very diplomatic saying, it's good but maybe you could leave some space - could you try it again? Just try it again.

And I think my father saw me as this little boy kind of getting worn out quickly (laughter) because I was saying, OK, whatever you want, you know? He had this idea - he said, OK, can I sit next to Julian? Is that cool? And they say of course. They bring out a chair. They get him a set of headphones, and my dad sits down next to me and he says, OK, son, so when they play the song back, play whatever you want, but whenever I touch your leg, let's just take a break. Just take a break. I say, OK, whatever, you know, that sounds good. So I'm sitting there and I start playing, and then he, you know, I'd play a four-measure phrase, and then he would just rest his hand on my knee. And we would just sit there and listen to the song for little while. And then he'd take his hand off and I'd play some more, then he'd put his hand on.

We did this throughout the course of the song. And when it was done - it was perfect because he - his understanding of form and tension release was so good that he was able to kind to say this is when you're needed, this is when your not, proportionally, like, at the end, you should play more or whatever. But he didn't say any of those things to me. And it was done in such a gentle fatherly way that I was - those were the kind of lessons that kept coming up and they had a lot to do with form, tension release, narrative - that was, like, my whole upbringing 'cause I think he kind of interested me to figure out the notes. But those other things, you either kind of heard things in that way or you didn't. I'm so grateful for that.

BRIGER: It sounds like you had monthly lunches with one of your heroes, Jim Hall. Is that true?

LAGE: Yeah, that's very true.

BRIGER: What was that like?

LAGE: It was really sweet 'cause I think going into it I thought oh, my God, I'm going to go hang out with Jim. And we had been friends ever since the first time I met him when I was 11. We had been friendly and he'd call me every six months or so, and I'd get a call and I'd say, hello? It'd be unknown, blocked number, and he'd say, what's the first chord of "All The Things You Are?" And I'd say F-minor? And he'd be like, that's great. It's Jim Hall. How's it going? And I'd get these periodically and so I knew he had a sense of humor. I knew he loved to reach out. I knew he wasn't precious (ph) you know, he wasn't the almighty Oz. He was a person, you know, albeit an - the most extraordinary person.

GROSS: FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger speaking with guitarist Julian Lage. Lage has a new album called "Arclight." This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with guitarist Julian Lage. Lage has a new album called "Arclight."

BRIGER: Now, last year, you released this wonderful solo acoustic album called "World's Fair." And I was wondering if you would play us a song. Would you play us some of "Day And Age?"

LAGE: Oh, of course, yeah, I like playing that.

BRIGER: Thanks.


BRIGER: That was great. Thank you so much for doing that.

LAGE: Thank you, Sam, of course.

BRIGER: That's Julian Lage playing his song "Day And Age" from his last year's acoustic solo album. You said that this album was a result of confronting certain fears and working around an injury. What were those issues?

LAGE: Oh, yeah, I blew my hand out. I blew out my left hand. About three or four years ago, I was playing a show in California and my left hand kind of spasmed shut, you know, basically I was gripping and - so hard evidently that my fingers just kind - they any degree of control.

BRIGER: That's scary.

LAGE: It was really scary, yeah. And it was totally the first time I'd ever had it. It wasn't - it just, you know, hit me over the head and I thought, oh my God, what have I done? And I managed to get through the show playing with basically my third - my ring finger and my pinky on the left hand. And I got off the stage and my left arm was basically, like, limp. It felt like I had short-circuited my complete - you know, the nerves on that side. So I went to the doctor's, did an MRI, checked it out. There's no nerve damage to speak of and there wasn't a definitive answer.

And then people started talking to me about it and they said, you know, it sounds a lot like focal dystonia, which is a condition that is actually a neurological condition. In a nutshell, it deals with the fact that your brain, if asked to do a certain activity so many times repeatedly - like, you know, typing, playing the piano, playing the guitar - the brain can start to almost try to become more efficient. And rather than giving you, you know, one kind of signal for your index finger another signal for your pinky, your brain will say, hey, we're - it's all going to the same place. Let's kind of combine those.

So you end up feeling like you have one big finger or you have two fingers. You don't feel the five digits of your hands. People said, you know, you did practice all those years and you did a lot of tedious stuff. You're kind of the perfect candidate for having your brain freak out. So I thought, well, that's great, you know? I didn't mean to do that. So I set about to kind of re-learn how to play the guitar in a way that was - that addressed these tendencies that got me in trouble in the first place.

BRIGER: So how do you do that? I mean, if you're - is it a lighter touch? It doesn't sound like it's muscular, though, right, so it's neurological.

LAGE: Well, that's just it. It's not even - and you hit the nail on the head - my first thing was, well, I'm playing too hard. I'll play lighter. And that would cause more trouble. Then I'd think, well, how is that possible? You know, in all the years of practicing stuff what I hadn't - you know, I think the way I look at it is you have to always kind of re-inspect your beliefs about the guitar. And you have to say, does this still hold true given what I know now, you know? And I feel like those are updates that musicians do all the time. And the one - the biggest thing that I never really unpacked was my conception of strength.

You know, when I was 5 years old the guitar was bigger than me and I had this conception that in order to play the guitar I had to throw myself into it and squeeze in a way that made kind of an adult sound, which meant that I, you know, I was scrappy. I squeezed with my left hand, I squeezed with my right hand - anything so that I, one, made a sound that sounded official, and two, I didn't drop the guitar, you know? And once I started looking, then I'd say, OK, well, now I'm quite a bit taller and I am stronger. Am I letting any of those resources actually work in my favor or am I still gripping as if the guitars is three times my size, you know? And so it unlocked this whole thing where I practiced a lot of - a lot of my practice in recovery from that injury, at least the beginning, was - had nothing to do with playing and everything to do with balancing the guitar. You know, say, OK, I'm going to sit here. I'm going to put the guitar on my lap. I'm going to see how far I can tilt until it falls.

And as soon as it would start to move out of position I would tense up and my arm would feel weird. I hadn't played a note, you know? And so then I'd let it fall a little further and I'd always catch it. And then I'd, you know, do it near a couch. I'd let it fall on the couch and just letting go of the guitar so that I could ironically hold it again was kind of step one. Step two was re-evaluating some very basic technical things. There were two teachers who kind of saved my life - guitar teachers. One is a brilliant flamenco guitarist named Juanito Pascual and the other is Jerald Harscher, both classical and flamenco players who had experience with this and then devoted their lives to finding more efficient techniques. The biggest one was - I don't know if this will be of any interest but it's - as a kid I was told that your left hand - you have to touch the guitar like you're kind of holding an orange.

So you make, like, a C shape and then you apply pressure. And what both these teachers taught me to do was to - they basically taught me how the hand actually works and how to let it almost collapse into the guitar. So my technique now is a lot more like smushing my hand into the neck rather than being like a jet fighter pilot whose, like, accurately shooting something at a target, you know? I gave up on precision in a big way and ironically it gave me a lot more precision.

BRIGER: Well, Julian Lage, thanks so much for being with us.

LAGE: Thank you, Sam, it's been such a treat.

GROSS: Guitarist Julian Lage spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Lage has a new trio album called "Arclight."


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be comic W. Kamau Bell. He's bringing his political and social satire to CNN in a new docu-series called "United Shades Of America." He initially pitched the show as a black guy goes to places he shouldn't go or we wouldn't expect him to go. The first episode fits that description. He meets several leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and witnesses a cross burning or, as the clansmen call it, a cross lighting. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.