Julian Lage Decodes the Guitar/Piano Duo

Lage and pianist Fred Hersch discover that "engagement" busts the myth that guitar and piano don't play well together in a jazz context.

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 freely throughout.

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 lesson?
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, especially—in contrapuntal-style 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 guitar.

Had you played duo with pianists before?
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?
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 studio?
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 many levels.

And what is that guitar that the note is stuck to?
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 so much.

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 elsewhere?
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].