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‘A cycle of love and curiosity’: Julian Lage’s lifetime of inspiration from his elders and peers

Julian Lage
Shervin Lainez
Julian Lage

Jazz has seen its fair share of prodigies. Young people who show remarkable facility and creativity beyond their years. Some go on to become major forces in the music like Christian McBride and Roy Hargrove. While others plateau, at least in terms of their profile in the jazz community. It doesn’t mean that they stop playing music, but that they may choose to focus on a different but related profession. Maybe they go on to become educators like saxophonist Christopher Hollyday. Or a software engineer like pianist Sergio Salvatore. Most recently, Joey Alexander astounded jazz fans and cognoscenti with his incredible chops as a pre-teen. Now a 20-year-old, his future remains bright, but not necessarily clear.

Julian Lage ,who started playing guitar at the age of five, was fortunate enough not only to have supportive but non-pressuring parents, but also to have come along before the internet and social media would make it impossible to develop away from intense public scrutiny. Nonetheless, he was the subject of a short documentary, Jules at Eight, which chronicled his unusual gifts at such a young age. Mentored by Gary Burton, Jim Hall and others, Lage evolved into one of the music’s true innovators, while also being comfortable in the world of Americana, acoustic music and indie-rock. His latest album, The Layers, features Julian with his trio of Jorge Roeder on bass and Dave King on drums. The recording is a prequel of sorts to View with the Room, released last year on Blue Note, because it came from the same recording session produced by Margaret Glaspy, his wife and musical partner (and an accomplished singer-songwriter herself).

In a conversation in front of a live audience during the Blue Note at Sea cruise, I spoke with Julian about his path as an artist. Knowing his sincere humility, almost in inverse proportion to his talents, I decided to use the people in his life as prompts to talk about his life and music. The results spoke volumes about the effect of both elders and peers in his own creative growth.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Lee Mergner: I don't know you real well, but I've known you since you were a kid, as many people have. I know that you would prefer not to talk just about yourself, but rather about other people. So today we're going to ask you about people in your life. The first one, clearly, is your father Mario.

Julian Lage: Yes. My father Mario, but both my parents truly. They're quite tremendous. I grew up in Santa Rosa, California, about an hour north of San Francisco. I'm the youngest of five children. I have three sisters and a brother. And, out of the family, I was kind of the only one who had a propensity for music and frankly, my dad started playing guitar at the same time I did. Him as an adult, me as a five-year-old.

Did everyone hear what he said? Five years old.  Oh, by the way, there is a film about Julian called Jules at Eight.

It's great that you know about it. My father growing up, he was a visual artist. He still is. As a young boy, he had a one man show as a 12-year-old in California. He was clearly so gifted and talented. Anyway, when I was coming up, I think he saw my interest in music, which stemmed from his interest in music, and both he and my mother sought to cultivate a healthy journey for me. I think with a lot of young people who show signs of being good at something, there can be a tendency to inadvertently exploit and pressure the young person, get them involved with adults who may not have their best interests at heart, but see how the young person can help the adults' mission. My parents were very protective and aware and hip to all that stuff.

In my early life my father and I shared the same trajectory. He would take lessons, show me what he learned. I would take lessons, show him what I learned. He'd come to all my lessons. At a certain point, I think it became clear that I was heading on this path. To this day, he's just such a clear and vivid part of my musical life, just as a friend and a mentor in a lot of ways. In a certain dynamic, the same is true for my mother in every other capacity there. I can't really speak to how special their thing is, but it's quite wonderful.

Another important adult for you a little bit later was Gary Burton. How old were you when he hired you as a sideman?

I was 12.

Come on.

It's weird to say that as an adult because that does sound weird. But I'll tell you this much. I'm grateful for this. I grew up just before the generation of social media with YouTube and all that. So, to be a young person in the world who showed signs of being good at something, it didn't mean your secret was out. You could still just be in hiding, practicing. Every so often you'd pop out into the world, be on a television show or not. Gary saw me play on the Grammys. This would've been when I was around 12.

They have a a youth-oriented group, right?

They do have a youth program, which I was not a part of. This was a separate thing. It was Eldar Djangirov, a wonderful piano player, the drummer Tony Royster Jr., the bass player Matt Brewer, and two classical musicians. It was a portion of the telecast where they said, “Here are these young people doing good.”

I played for all of about 12 seconds. Gary was in the audience and he wrote me a letter about a month later. He said, “My name's Gary Burton…would you be available to play a gig with me at the TED Conference in Monterey, California.” Not terribly far from where I grew up. We did the gig and it went great. Based on that, he asked me to join him on a cruise. It was fantastic and it began a relationship that was pretty steady. We had a working relationship from when I was 12 until I was 22. It was about a decade solid.

What did you learn from him over that time?

Gary's the consummate professional musician. Not only is he deeply brilliant, but he runs his affairs very well. He's a good bandleader. He takes care of the whole constellation of things that matter, being healthy and being in a good place spiritually, emotionally, whatever it is to do your job well consistently. And he does it with a really particular kind of charisma. I never saw him not be at his best. He’s one of those cats who doesn't have a bad night, but he did in a very organic way. I think from him, I saw what's possible.

Gary Burton: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

Furthermore, and I think this is really special, I never felt intimidated by him. I think one of Gary's things is he makes people around him play their best. I saw that that was possible, that you can set a tone where everyone around you just wants to kill it. They never feel that as a band leader you're looking at them going, “That's not enough.” It was never that kind of energy. It was really a disposition that I learned from him. And I continue to learn from him. I just saw him before we left on the ship, because he lives in Florida.

He retired from playing about six years ago and he's very happy. To see him again, I just felt very grateful. I learned more from him than I can really put into words. Also, as an innovator, Gary's not a traditional jazz musician in the sense that you can peg him. There’s the part of his life that's rock or jazz. There's part of his life that's deep into tango. There's the classical world. There's the more avant garde stuff. There's the Tennessee Firebird era, which is him with all the bluegrass musicians. In many respects, he's the prototypical modern conceptual artist as a musician. I definitely follow in his path.

He was an educator too. He ran the program at Berklee for a long time, for 30 plus years.

Education as an extension of a performing artist’s life was not always the thing it is now. That thing came later and Gary really juggled it all. As someone who teaches or has taught quite a bit, I think I got that from him as well.

Another elder that was really important to you was the legendary guitarist Jim Hall. It’s amazing that you got to be close to the guy who played with Sonny Rollins on The Bridge album. A lot of people don't know that Jim really loved connecting with his fellow guitarists and musicians. He would even gather them together socially in New York City for lunches or whatever.

Jim Hall to me, that’s God, that's like the top of it all. I’ve always felt that. I first heard him when I was probably seven years old, and I kind of had that moment where I said, “That's what I want to do.” That's Jim Hall to me, and I think to a lot of people. I went to see him play at Yoshi's in Oakland when I would've been about 11. We had a mutual friend, Dr. Herb Wong, a very important figure in the jazz culture. My father, my guitar teacher, his wife and myself were sitting in the front ready for Jim. For me this is like seeing the biggest rock star in the world.

I'm dying to see this guy. It’s a packed room. Out from the backstage comes Jim, and he's starting to walk through the audience. And my dad very sweetly said, “I bet he's looking for you.” I said, “Yeah, right.” Sure enough, he walked through the audience, “Excuse me, excuse me, I'm sorry.” He awkwardly got his way through the whole audience, right to our table and he said, “Hi, I’m Jim Hall.” I could not believe it. I said, “Hello?” He said, “I heard you're a young guitar player, and I just want to say thank you for coming.” It was the sweetest thing ever. It turns out Herb had obviously let him know there's this kid and you can't miss him.

A few days later we went back with my mother to the matinee show. We sat and had tea and coffee with him. We just talked and then basically from the time that I was 11 until I was in my twenties, he would call me every few months just to check in. Keep in mind, he never heard me. So it wasn't like he was so impressed.

Are you sure he didn't hear your playing?

No, I wasn't on any recordings. There was no YouTube then. None of that. He just felt it was the right thing to do. And that's kind of miraculous. Years later when I moved to New York, our friend Brian Camilo, who runs ArtistShare, which is the label that Jim’s records are still put out, brokered a meeting where I could meet Jim and go to his apartment and play with him. It was kind of under false pretenses on purpose. He was just looking for any reason for me to hang out with Jim Hall. He said, “Jim's putting out a record, and they have to put out a bonus video of him playing ‘Autumn Leaves.’ Do you think you could accompany him?” I realized after the fact he didn't have to do that. He didn't need a bonus track. But I said, “Sure.”

It was your track.

It was my track. I went over to his house. It was incredible. This was 10 years into knowing Jim. We finally played together. It was great. Then we started a quartet. It was myself, Jim Hall, Scott Colley and Joey Baron. We did a week at The Blue Note and we did some stuff in Connecticut.

All of this connects to what you mentioned, which is these luncheons that were held in New York. Every month we'd meet at the French Press on 11th or 12th in the West Village, right around the corner from his place. He could just walk down the block. It would just be a different cast of people who were close with Jim and loved him. It was myself, our dear friend Kate Schutt, Chris Potter, Scott Colley, Adam Rogers, Dave Binney, Larry Goldings. Nels Cline was someone who would come to these. He would be there when I wasn't. I'd be there when he wasn't, until eventually we landed on the same luncheon and that became its own “Love at first sight” experience. That's its own story. But we did it up until the week before Jim died. It was very magical.

I know that you look at what he did for you and the others. But I have to think that you guys probably did a lot for him.

I think you're right. I can't speak to the specifics, but I got the sense that Jim didn't like talking about the past. It's easy for me to romanticize his time with Ella or with Sonny and be like, “What were the fifties like?” He would just say, “It was terrible, it was deeply segregated, it was unfair, it was unjust.”

The Bridge (Remastered)

Sonny even went to jail back then.

Of course, Jim and Sonny couldn't go in the same entrance to a club. I think it was deeply traumatic. Frankly, he could've ignored that and made it about him. “Yeah, it was great and I did play my best.” He was like, “It's not about any of that.” He would say that, “The past is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. I was very grateful for that.

He was only into what people were doing that was new, different things that were unexpected. I think about that lesson all the time, especially in jazz, where it's understandable to fetishize a different era. He always kept it about humanity. I think we represented hope in a sense. I'd show him records I was making at the time, which were a little bit unusual, with cello and a chamber thing. He thought that was great because he didn't hear other people doing it. Ironically, I pretty much stole all that from Chico Hamilton's band that he was in. It was just so sweet. I think not a day goes by that I don't think about him or wonder what he would do in a situation.

You mentioned another person very much in the present, which is the innovative guitarist Nels Cline. It’s funny, I was a fan of Nels and the band Wilco, but I would have never predicted that he’d have ended up in that group. He’s always been a tremendous improvising guitarist. You two struck up both a personal and musical relationship.

I think of Nels as the gateway between improvised music, the avant garde and all that world with the world of songs as a deeply melodic, beautiful song player. I think of his involvement with Wilco, which is such a robust song-driven band led by Jeff Tweedy. There's no one like Nels. We met at this Jim Hall function at the time. Nels lived a block from around the corner from Jim. We'd have lunch.

One time we walked down the street to his house, picked up two guitars and played, and it was all improvised. Quite honestly, I remember feeling like everything I've ever studied in my life was to prepare for this moment to play with Nels. I played a lot of improvised music, but I never played as freely as I had with Nels.

He was like, “Well, we should just go do a show. We should turn this into a thing.” I didn't think that was allowed. I didn't think I had permission. I said, “Yeah, but what songs are we going to play?” He said,
“We’ll just play the guitar. That's it.” I thought, “Aah, I can do that.” It took all the stress of other things away. Nels is one of these people, if you know him, who is kind of like the middle of a spoke of a bicycle wheel. He connects to everybody. And through him I started working with Sean Lennon, whom he was living with at the time.

Nels Cline & Julian Lage - Racy (Live on KEXP)

Through that I did some recording with Yoko Ono. And through that I became more on the radar of John Zorn, who's now one of my dearest friends and someone I've been working with for many years, making a lot of records. Nels introduced me to another side of the whole spectrum. I'm just so grateful for it.

It is one of the great things about guitar, right? Piano players rarely get to play together. Same with bass players, drummers.

Guitar players, we play together. We tend to look out for each other. There's a lot of camaraderie.

Recently, you've been playing in a trio format. You’re doing that here on the cruise, but you've been doing that for a while with Jorge Roeder and Dave King.  I'm guessing you met Jorge through the New England Conservatory.

No, earlier. I would've been about 17. We met at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, where I was teaching at the time. Jorge and I played there at the camp. Instantly, I loved him. Fast forward, I went to Berklee. He had already left NEC and moved to New York. I started a band and we started working together in my band.

You have to understand my relationship with Jorge is incredibly deep, personally and playing-wise. Musically, the compositional language that I've been chasing or trying to refine is all about the way we play together. I write for him. I am inspired by him.

All of those things are a kind of a driving force. At a certain point we were doing my thing that kind of changed. I was playing in a trio with Scott Colley and Kenny Wolleson, but then Jorge joined Gary Burton's band. We were playing together. And then Jorge joined Nels Cline’s band, which I was in, and then we started a band with John Zorn together, the Masada Group. Then it kind of came full circle into our trio. That's not chronological necessarily, but the trio with Dave and Jorge, it's just all of these influences coming to a head with my band.

Julian Lage - Auditorium (Official Video)

Dave is a great drummer and co-founder of the band The Bad Plus. Were you a fan of The Bad Plus?

Absolutely. I love the Bad Plus. I was a fan my whole life. We met in Australia. We were at a festival. I said hi and he said hi, and there was a sense that at some point we should do something. I had a week at The Stone, which is a club in New York that John Zorn runs. Over the course of the year, they’d have a week curated by a different musician. I had a week and back in the day you had to have 12 different sets of music over six days. It's almost like a commission. You're forced to start bands. At eight o'clock, it's one band and at 10 o'clock it's another. It's really miraculous.

One of those nights was like my Dave King Night, and the first set was a trio, with Jorge and Dave, and it was just so good. I set about trying to figure out every possible way to play together. It was great then, but I think it's even better now because we've now made several records, similar to with Jorge.

As I was saying before, I've written for Dave. Dave is one of the great conceptual artists of the music and also someone who's very interested in the history of the music, which all three of us are. Every time he plays the drums, you're hearing the lineage and you're hearing the future. I think we're well suited to each other.

One thing I wanted to add is that besides his talents as a drummer, he’s also a great band namer. The Bad Plus, Happy Apple, The Dave King Trucking Company.

And Halloween Alaska. That’s one of his bands.

Maybe you need to get away from the Julian Lage Trio.

Maybe. He’d be my guy.

The albums that you recorded with the trio are on Blue Note. How did you come to end up working with Don Was on Blue Note?

He's the best. I've known Don for years. I knew his children because they came to Stanford Jazz Workshop as participants. and I'm just a fan of Don's. Playing, like I just, I've on records. I think he's one of the greatest electric bassists. He's just the man.

At a certain point I was looking for a new label, a new home. Bringing the conversation up with Don was very organic. I got the sense, which I think all artists on Blue Note feel, that Don is interested in cultivating the development of an artist, not just “Gimme one record.” Let's see if it's good, and then we'll talk. It's more that you're going to create and we'd rather you create with us so that we can see the evolution and we can support you. That can go on, God willing, as long as it can. That model really resonated with me and I feel deeply privileged to be a part of the Blue Note family, because Don's so cool. The people who work with Don are so cool. It always trickles down that way.

Julian Lage - Word For Word (Official Video)

Your record with them that came out this past year was View with the Room.

It's kind of like this. [Points to the view of the ocean from the venue.] It's a view and it's the room.

And you have a new one called The Layers coming out in March. Is The Layers also with the trio?

The Layers is from the record date we did for View with the Room. It's the trio featuring Bill Frisell in an accompaniment role. We're not sparring, per se. He's integrated into the trio. In the session there were these six songs that basically we couldn't fit on a record. As I looked at them, I realized they represented their own more mysterious ethos.

There's acoustic guitar songs, there's a duet with me and Jorge, there's a duet with me and Bill. I think we all came to the conclusion that it constituted its own offering. The Layers is that offering. I think of it almost like a prequel rather than a sequel. It's all the songs that if you listen to The Layers and then you listen to this record, you'll hear why we ended up making this record.

You’ve had so many interesting and important figures in your life. Another is the luthier Bill Collings.

Yes, Bill Collings was a tremendous figure in the world of guitar making. There's Martin guitars, there's Gibson, there's Fender, there are these major companies that are major for a reason. They've made great instruments. But at a certain point, there was a shift in consciousness that said, “Well, a small builder can make better guitars and they can have just enough oomph behind them that they can compete with the majors.” They’re not making 40,000 guitars a year. Maybe they're making 200, but they're in the marketplace. Bill was kind of at the forefront of that. We collaborated together on two guitars. One, while he was alive and in it, was an acoustic guitar that became a signature model of mine.

Then right as he was at the end of his life—he wasn't terribly old at all, but he got sick and he died—we began [working on] a signature electric guitar. It wasn't finished when he died, but he passed away and his team and I finished the guitar and that became my main guitar.

He’s just one of those figures. He was famously, I don't want to say cantankerous, but he was brash and he'd kind of scare you. I got through there somehow. He made a guitar for me and he said, “It will last forever and it does this thing.” I don't really know where I got the chutzpah to say, “I don't want a guitar to outlive me. I want it to sound good now and it should do this or that...” I think I drove him crazy. After he died, people said, “Bill really liked that you pushed back because it made him a better builder.” And I thought, “Well, that's great.” But I felt the same too. He kind of forced me to articulate what a good guitar needs to be.

What is that for you?

Something that's idiosyncratic and magnetic. The best guitar is the one you can't put down. It's not the one that sounds great. Sometimes great guitars you can't put down. But sometimes great guitars make you feel like you're not worthy. You'll see this all the time. People buy these beautiful guitars for a lot of money and they say, “Well, I'm not worthy, so I don't play it.” It's kind of sad because you should play it.

I don't begrudge anyone that, because I'm sure it's the same with cars or with whatever the thing is. But I do think a guitar is little bit unusual. As a player you're transfixed and you can't forget it and you want to play. The truth of the matter is the more you can't forget it, the more you play. The more you play, the better you sound, and the better you sound, the more you want to play the guitar. So it’s a cycle. I think the Collings family understands that a guitar has to get you into that cycle of love and curiosity with an instrument, not to keep you at an arm's length.

Your last record was co-produced by Armand Hirsch.

Armand Hirsch is one of these people who are so talented, it makes you sick. When I knew him as a jazz guitar player, he was 15.

I've known a few of those.

I know. But dig this, when he was about the age I was doing stuff with Gary, he was 15 or 16 and he’s playing guitar with Hank Jones, in his last band. Then out of that he became a neuroscientist, went to Columbia, and then he became a drummer in a lot of popular rock bands. At this point in his life, he's basically like this Excalibur producer person in the tradition of Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois. He's deeply talented. He was involved in the last two records for Blue Note.

What he adds is arguably very subtle. It's a lot of production elements. For example, there are passages where we wanted reinforcement and he would take the drums and he would tune them down an octave. They're kind of a low rumble and he would mix just a little bit of that into the song every time we hit the chorus.

You'll be listening and for some reason the chorus will come and you'll feel more impact, but nothing's changed technically. If you looked at the mix, you would see these little low things that kind of give it a little hum. It's subtle and in the world of jazz, I think it's actually very appropriate because it doesn't interfere with our playing. It just supports it. He's done that to varying degrees on both of the last two records. He’s a special musician.

Also working on that record is the talented singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy.

Yes, Margaret's the baddest. We've been partners since college. We met at Berklee. Now we're married. The funny thing is, back then we played so much music together in lieu of dating. Then we got together and we stopped making music and we just kind of started a life together.

Margaret Glaspy: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

At this point, we've come full circle and realized that we also can do that other thing. There's no one I trust more than Margaret. If you don't know her musically, please listen to her as she's one of the great rock and roll guitar players and singer songwriters. You just think of her as a singer songwriter, but it’s deeper than that. She’s always self-produced her records. She has a tremendous knack for proportion, pacing, what touches your heart, not just what impresses you. In the case of our records, it's been so good to have her at the helm because we can play something and she can say, “That's really impressive, but I kind of don't care” Then we can do it again. And she's right. It's like it's the ears that you wish you had.

I think, especially in View with the Room, that is a Margaret production. That's her listening to us. We play a song, she'd go, “You're done. Move on.” Thank God she did, because I'd still be there right now.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”