Absolutely we have responsibility to wake the fuck up basically - an interview with Julian Lage

Przemysław Chmiel
Autor zdjęcia: 
mat. promocyjne

Przemysław Chmiel: I went through your discography and I listened to probably all of your albums…

Julian Lage: Wow, great!

P.Ch.: ...what is interesting for me is that at least four of CDs are recorded in a duo setting.

J. L.: Yeah, you’re right!

P. Ch.: Three of them are with another guitarist. So what is that interesting for you about this duo setting in playing music?

J. L.: Well, when I grew up I had a teacher, named Randy Vincent, great guitar player. And part of my education was I would study, and it’s very specific to guitar community, a big part of education was just we were playing duo concerts. So we played in a restaurant, we played in a bar, we played in a club. And then we talked about it at the lesson. Two guitars work so well together. I think I’ve always found it very comforting when I was a kid. There is a lot responsibility – I don’t want to say ,,responsibility” like it’s a burden – but you can affect your accompaniment, the soloing and the melody, and the time feel. So it’s very rich. Very rich. When you’ve got a third person it’s like adding 100 people, ‘cause then you’ve got all of these combinations, right? You know this as a player. But duo to me is the most succinct – even more succinct than solo for some reason – because it’s immediately reach. So I feel like duo it’s the most comfortable, then maybe trio, and solo. It gets little less comfortable as I get to solo. Also with those records you mentioned. You know the other player has his own strong personality. Fred Hersch – so distinguished. Nels Cline - so distinguished. Chris Eldridge - so distinguished. Now we’re talking from the American fiddle tradition, bluegrass. So you can see how different they are. Two people is all you need. It’s kind of like I’m 100 percent, they’re 100 percent – you have 200 percent. It feels huge. That’s why I like it.



P. Ch.: It’s funny that some people say that if you record guitar in a duo with piano it going to be some kind of a battle between them. But you and Fred sound almost like in a baroque music, like two voices going in the same direction. It’s beautiful. I really enjoyed it.

J. L.: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

P. Ch.: Some musicians decide to have one working band with the same people through decades sometimes, but you liked to record your albums with different musicians and it’s great to hear you in a different settings, but I would like to know how do you choose your fellow musicians as partners for your albums.

J. L.: I like that question a lot. How do you catch for a record. There is something about timing. My first trio was Kenny Wollesen and Scott Colley. I’ve been playing with Scott a lot with Gary Burton’s band. I wanted a trio with him. And Kenny – I loved his playing, I was thinking about him a lot, but we weren’t playing together. So at that time it’s like: take the thing you’re comfortable with – which is playing with Scott – and add a new element. And then we went on a tour and sometimes Scott wouldn’t be available, but Jorge Roeder would be available. Jorge and I, we’ve been in my bands together, so we have kind of a connection. So the timing for the tour often was that Scott was busy, and there was time when Kenny was busy, and I started to thinking about Dave King. There were times when they were all busy, and I started thinking about Eric Dube, who was also a part of our trio. So I’m very comfortable with a change in personnel, because they’re all people that I’m  very close with. It’s like everyone is on the same page, so they’re all the greatest musicians on the world, you know what I mean? So I’m lucky no matter what. They are bringing different qualities. But your question was about how do you decide for the record. So when those records were made, those were the people I was working with the most. So there was a moment we were not playing a lot, but we were talking about playing a lot, and then I was asked to do a record, and the day before I was asked to do a gig somewhere. And I thought that it would be Dave for the gig, and then we could go on a record. So there is a certain amount of faith, have fun with it. You can do anything you want. And the last part of that is that once I know who is on a band for the record, I do think that writing music for the record becomes geared towards those musicians. So when I know it’s going to be Kenny and Scott I really want to make sure that the parts are supportive of what they do naturally, honor their native sensibilities. And it’s the same with Dave and Jorge. The music I play with Dave and Jorge is very different at times. Right now, and I think with our latest record, it’s all kind of starting to blur, which is good. I want it all to just sound like Julian Trio Music. That’s what I want. But conceiving of it is very personalised. Very personalised.

P. Ch.:  I think it’s safe to say, that when you choose your band mates you have to sound good together. But do you think that personal relationships are important?

J.L.: Oh, it’s vital. Absolutely. I feel that you don’t have to play with assholes, you don’t  have to play with people who don’t make you feel wonderful. Fortunately there is a lot of good people in this community. There is a lot of community, love, risk. We all have struggles, we share that.  Part what I love about jazz music is the fact that we are in it together, and the fact that it is not mainstream. You know what I mean? It’s subculture of passionate, brilliant, loving people. I almost feel like we have to stick together. You hear stories that people aren’t treated well and it sucks. But you don’t have to do that if you don’t feel it. It doesn’t mean that you have to be best friends either, you know that as a musician. I’ve been very fortunate though that the people in my band I love. They’re brothers. And it’s inspiring, it makes me want to be better for them and be good to them. It’s very fortunate position, very fortunate.



P. Ch.: You studied classical music and jazz, so I assume that you’ve met great teachers of craftsmanship, harmony and composition but I wonder if there was a person that changed you as an artist? That talk to you about what does it mean to be an artist?

J. L.: Absolutely. Couple people come to mind, I’ve been so fortunate to have mentors, you know. My parents – it’s hugely like a mentor relationship in a way. I love them, they’re my parents, but their brilliant and they know things that they’ve been sharing with me my whole life. Specific to music – Gary Burton was the first person who maybe showed what it means to be professional musician, like how do you craft a setlist, how do you do a soundcheck, how do you produce a record. How do you do it so it feels... like official, you know? Jim Hall was the second mentor who really taught me that music is one of the arts. So you look at improvisation not it’s like I can do this, I can play this way, I learned this at school, but it’s like with a paint brush: you’ve got a lot of choices. About your tone, your touch, how is it perceived. But it’s an art form. John Zorn is probably the third person I would say. I’ve been working with him so much that I feel like I’m disciple. And his thing is that music is art, but it’s also that music is humanity. We need this, there is urgency why we do it. It’s not just because you can, it’s because we are not alive forever, we’re gonna die, we want to leave things better than we found them, you know? With John it’s so much about community and it’s about he’ll write three hundred new songs and we’ll come to Poland to play them with thirty musicians and fifteen bands. So he is creating work from his work. And I’ve always thought that it’s so remarkable. It’s kind of what Duke Ellington did. We create things for community to thrive, even long after we are gone. So those are three examples of kind of life changing perspectives that didn’t occur to me right away. Or maybe they lay doormen in my psyche. I’m sure you’ve had experience with people say stuff, and you feel like ,,yeah, I do feel like it”, but you’ve never thought about it, until someone says it.

P. Ch.: One of CD’s that you’ve recorded as a sideman was Eric Harland’s band Voyager? How do you recall this adventure?

J. L.: The first record ,,Live by night” I think it’s called – if that’s the record you’re referring to – I didn’t consciously did that record, it was our first gig ever as a band.

P. Ch.: Really? Wow!

J. L.: Yeah. Someone recorded it and then he decided to put it out. And it sounds great. Taylor Eigsti and I go way back and he’s so wonderful and he was using Eric and Rueben Rogers for a long time as his rhythm section. So I played a lot with Eric. Then at some point Eric was like I want Julian and Taylor for my band, and then Harish and Walter Smith came in. Originally it was Harish and Potter. We did one show with Potter in America. And then we started in Paris with Walter and that was the record. So very organically it’s how  came together. I love Eric dearly. He’s another of my spiritual mentors in life. And then we played quite a bit together with Charles Lloyd’s band. I just feel very lucky because he’s so great and generous and gets better all the time – another words it’s all we want, you know?


P. Ch.: When I was listening to your music I think that you really love different aesthetics and different inspirations from different genres of music but I haven’t found that much of free improvised stuff, maybe some shades of it on your record with Nels Cline. I wonder do you listen to this kind of music?

J. L.: Yeah, I listen that the most. Just anything in the family of Ornette or Paul Bley, lot of Dewey, anything Paul Motian did. And it’s true on record. But, God, we just made a great record, that’s gonna come out. Lots of it is on Zorn’s ;label, when you can only buy the CD. We just made a record of me, John Zorn, Kenny Wollesen, and Jorge, doing Masada the new quartet. Free improvisation is majority of it. I’m so fascinated by free improvisation how songs kind of grow out of improvisation. It’s like if you listen to Ornette, or Dewey, or Charlie Haden. I’m just picking that crew – obviously that is a global phenomenon – but for the sake of argument. Theirs solos are like Archie Shepp, it’s like they are songs, it’s like there are love songs in their improvisation. So my fascination with lyricism and melodicysm is really about how those things grow out of free improvisation rather that free improvisation being something you do at one time in one way. So I think about it a lot. I do listen to music of that nature quite a bit.

P. Ch.: I was talking to my friend once and she said that a musician who is well known and has great number of followers could use his popularity to speak about some let’s say important topics, like politics or some social problems. What do you think about it?

J. L.: I think absolutely. I think that depends on the person too. Last year there was so much fucked up stuff on the world, sadly that it’s not new. Racism is, in America especially... to call it a great tragedy doesn’t do a justice. As the pandemic begin and America’s sort of reckoning with it’s horrendous history of racism and white supremacy, my attention went more towards looking at what that means to be a performing artist and what platforms we have. I started a website called guitar.study which was where we all teach, where we raised money to help with anti-racist work, women’s reproductive rights in the South and climate change initiatives. So we have this platform, we’re gonna generate money, let’s have the money go there. A dollar for every ticket we sell at our shows goes to these organisations too. That’s where my voice lays. It’s how do we get resources, that’s what I’m interested in. And a commitment to my own education, so I can speak about it. And this music it’s an African-american tradition, art form, and I’ve been blessed to be a child of the tradition. Absolutely we have responsibility to wake the fuck up basically. And there are a lot of ways to do it, platform. I’m personally not on social media, not directly. My management is, the label is. I haven’t been for years, it’s not my native language. My commitment is to finding out platforms where I can voice these thoughts. And I think that everyone’s got their own relationship to it. There are things that we do: resources, awareness, money, education. And then there is a music  as a form.. you want the music to sound like the protest. So from an artistic point of view that’s my consideration. And as a teacher too – I teach so much. That’s kind of a social justice work especially when you’re with young people and you’re saying: lets talk about the context that you’re coming into and how to wake up and do good. And I do believe that that platform is huge. And I do believe that everyone needs to find their relationship to it, but we have to do something.


P. Ch.: You were called a child prodigy and you’ve tasted fame quite early, I suppose there were many advantages of this situation but looking back, as a man in his thirties, were there any shades, darks sides of this situation?

J. L.: Hmm. Nothing in particular stands out. I was considered a child prodigy before YouTube, before social media. Only way you could hear me was if I played a show in your town and I wasn’t touring. So I was just getting good at playing guitar at a young age  and studying a lot, but it wasn’t nearly as hard as I think it is today. Do you know what I mean? I didn’t make my first record until I was 21. Even though I started playing guitar when I was five. Yes I got so much attention for it, but keep in mind, that people are trying to be really sweet, they see a kid and they see a kid doing something and they go ,,You’re great”. They need me to be a prodigy for them. They need me to be great because it brings them joy. And I always felt very clear about it, that it said nothing about me, it said everything about them. And I wouldn’t deprive them of that. But I was a secret for 20 years. And now it’s getting more robust, but I feel that it’s very sensitive for someone nowadays where you are ten years old, you’re great in something and everyone is seeing it. Oh, that’s so much pressure. I didn’t have that much pressure. I had no pressure. It was just like ,,Go practise guitar”. That’s our time. Great questions brother, I very appreciate it.

P. Ch. : Thank you very much for your time!