Julian Lage sounds absolutely fearless on Free Flying [Palmetto], the new live album pairing him with pianist Fred Hersch. It’s a joy to hear, particularly on
a piano/guitar duet recording. The music these guys make together busts the longstanding
myth that guitar and piano don’t work well together in a jazz context. Both
instruments serve similar rhythmic and harmonic functions, and share similar frequency
ranges—as the conventional wisdom goes—so the potential for clashes is
always looming. But, as Lage himself pointed out when I spoke with him in September,
such similarities have never stopped traditional string bands from coupling the
guitar with a Dobro and/or banjo. In that context, says Lage, “it’s understood that
two are better than one, even if you’re going for the same sound. You can beef things
up by joining in, or create contrast by going in another direction.”
“One of the ways that it works with
Fred and me,” Lage continues, “is that
we’re both unapologetically engaged.
Rarely is it like, ‘Oh, you’re there, so
I should go away from there,’ or ‘I
shouldn’t play big chords when you’re
playing big chords.’ If we overlap,
frequency-wise, that’s still great. It’s
better not to feel like you’re walking
on eggshells. They’re different timbres,
and you’re only going to enhance the
one sound that the audience is hearing.
You think of it as two different things,
but really it’s one big sound—a pianotar,
or some new instrument.”
Part of what makes Lage’s duo with
Hersch so compelling is that they share
similar musical conceptions, despite
being a generation apart (Hersch is
58, Lage 26). Both men have keenly
developed melodic sensibilities,
and both approach harmony as a
contrapuntal—rather than strictly
chordal—discipline. The other tie that
binds them so beautifully is Lage’s
sound. Though he plays an amplified
archtop guitar, the quality of his tone is
clear and airy. This seems to be key in
achieving sonic unity between the guitar
and the grand piano. “When we’re
around the same volume and I keep
everything open and a little acoustic,”
Lage says, “I can kind of do anything.”
On the playful “Monk’s Dream,” for
example, he expertly supports Hersch’s
solo with unexpected chordal jabs,
never resorting to the jazz-guitar
custom of strumming four chords per
bar. His rhythmic approach is similar
on “Down Home”—a jaunty Hersch
tune dedicated to guitarist Bill Frisell.
Indeed, with a heavier sound, Lage’s
agile playing might have cramped the
pianist’s style, but that never happens
on Free Flying. Both Lage and Hersch fly
How did you and Fred first meet?
We met at a Starbucks. I was living
in Boston at the time, and he was in
town teaching. I walked up to him and
said, “I’m a huge fan. I’d love to take
a lesson.” I made a trip to New York
within a month or so, and had the
lesson. It turned out we had a really good rapport, so we kept doing stuff
together. One thing led to the next and
we had a duo.
What did you want to learn in that
I went to Fred and said I wanted to
play solo guitar, and do all this fancy
stuff like he does. He said, “Okay, play
something for me.” I did. Afterward,
he said, “You’ve got to find something
that you think is interesting, and run
with it.” I thought that was the coolest
advice. He changed the paradigm from
“Look what I can do!” to “What do I care
about?” If you follow that trajectory and
develop those themes, what you play
will be totally compelling. So the way
to get more sound and more ideas is to
slow down and to savor all the nuances,
which isn’t what I expected.
I was interested—at that time,
soloing. Fred’s got such an incredible
sense of music. He’s not tied to
traditional roles, like, “Here’s your bass
line, and here are your comping chords,
and here’s your solo.” It’s more like
one giant organism of sound. He can
solo in the low register, and be doing
contrapuntal stuff in the high register,
and be completely reharmonizing the
tune as he goes. That degree of fluidity is something I still strive for on
Had you played duo with pianists
Most of my musical upbringing
was, in one way or another, playing
with Taylor Eigsti—a brilliant piano
player. We grew up in the Bay Area
together and cultivated the piano/
guitar thing as a real passion of ours,
for years. Although Taylor and I play
very differently together than Fred
and I do, it certainly set the stage.
So I wasn’t skeptical about working
with Fred. I went into it going, “Oh,
this is gonna be really fun.”
You guys don’t follow the
expectation of taking turns in the
featured role. Mostly, it feels like
you’re both all-in. Did you rehearse
A lot was left to the moment,
which was fun. Fred has so much
respect and sensitivity as a player
that I’ve really had to learn to play
like I’m at a grand piano, too. I
always have to consider the harmony
in the lower voices while I’m soloing.
That takes a degree of understanding
that’s closer to classical music than
to traditional jazz.
The tunes on Free Flying were
culled from a three-night run at a
jazz club in New York City. What’s
the difference between that kind of
live recording and a record made in
The things that feel really
exhilarating live—the bursts of
energy, and the digging in—all that
stuff feels really satisfying in the
moment. However, on a record, you
have to consider that the audience’s
ear is where the microphones are.
Often, those bursts are actually kind
of agitating. If you play too hard
or play too much, it’s almost like
yelling at someone who’s two feet
away from you. You don’t have to
yell. They’re right there.
Looking at the photo on the back
of Free Flying, I noticed what seems
to be a small note stuck on the side
of your guitar. What does it say?
[Laughs.] It says, “play good.” Bassist Scott Colley gave me that note
years ago. I get a kick out of it, on so
And what is that guitar that the note is
It’s a Blue Note model made by Linda
Manzer. I’ve been playing that guitar since
I was 11, actually. I’ve grown up with that
instrument, and it continues to teach me
That guitar must’ve been really big for
you at that age.
Until I was about 14, all guitars were
big. Size is relative. When you’re a kid, if
something is big, you just climb over it. As
I’ve grown in stature, I’ve had to revamp my
technique a lot, because I no longer have to
climb over an instrument. Now I can play
a lot lighter and gentler than I did as a kid.
And with a lighter touch?
Yeah. There’s strength and there’s
power, but it’s not in the hands as much as
it’s in my leg, and torso, and arms.
That’s very interesting. How did you
discover that the energy comes from
I’ve struggled with some hand issues in
the last couple of years—especially in my
left hand. Growing up as a player, I had a
little bit of the point-and-shoot mentality.
If I wanted to play something, I’d contort
my hands any which way so I could play it.
I developed this funny kind of technique,
I think. But the more I had hand issues—
tension, weakness, and fatigue—the more
I started to realize that by the time the
movement gets to the hands, that’s the end
of the line. I started thinking about how
I could teach my whole body to play the
guitar. My hands will just be conveniently
located on the guitar.
How do you practice that?
I’ll practice scales, moving from the
hip in order to make the note, or practice
walking around my room to play a scale—
anything to take the pressure off of the
hands being the main event. I’d been getting
a little robotic at a certain point. I don’t like
the way that sounds, and it feels awful, so I
looked for this greater source of energy.
At home, do you usually practice
electric or acoustic?
Left to my own devices, I’m always on a
flattop. That, to me, is just so guitar. Every
time an amp comes into it, I get a little bit
squeamish. I feel like, “I’m playing here, why
is the sound coming out over there?” I still
don’t get it [laughs].
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