Artist Spotlight, TNAG Connoisseur

Conversation with Julian Lage on Recording and "Squint"

In the second issue of Connoisseur, we continued with a six-part series, in which noted jazz guitarist Julian Lage discusses guitars and gear; recording, writing, and arranging; practice tips, and other topics. This time, Julian talks us through the composing and recording of 2021's Squint, and some of its pandemic-related challenges.

Your new album just came out. Please tell us a little about how this one came together, in what is undoubtedly a tricky time for musicians everywhere. 

The record’s called Squint, and it’s our debut for Blue Note. And my wife and I, we lived in New York for the last ten years and loved it, and then in June of last year, you know, we were a few months into the pandemic, and we decided, ‘We should kind of get out of here.’ New York’s a tricky place during this time. As you know, you can’t really get out of there. And where we lived it was very heavily populated, so we moved to Nashville just for like a ten-month trial with the intent of going back, but also leaving the door open of, ‘Maybe we’ll love it. Maybe we’ll buy a place…’ 

And we have loved it, it’s been great, but we’re planning to move back to New Jersey in the spring. We kind of realized that you could do the suburban thing but still have the city. We were joking, we said, ‘Man, we way over-shot it!’ We thought you had to go to Nashville to get out of New York [laughs], and then we thought, ‘Wait a second… just over the river!’

So, in that time, part of the deal was to make this record. This record was on the books in New York, we moved to Nashville, had the band come down here and recorded it at Sound Emporium, a great studio here.

And in the months preceding the recording, which was done last fall, I just used my time down here in Nashville to get really quiet and re-write a lot of music that I had written previously, and kind of re-fashion it through the lens of everything that was coming forth on such an international level: social injustice, and oppression, and systemic racism, and the mass mourning of the lives lost with the pandemic, and just the general temperament—with no intent of capturing that in music, necessarily, but at least to make music that was sympathetic to that reality. 

That’s fascinating. And I expect any thinking, feeling artist would have difficulty creating something this past year without reflecting on some or all of those things. 

Yeah. I didn’t want to just say, ‘Here’s another burner!’ and ‘This one’s fun!’ I mean, there’s a place for everything, right? But just, personally, I wanted to make sure the music felt like it was written with an awareness of reality. And so, that was the deal. I had the great experience of writing most of it with the [Collings] 470 JL and basically making everything appropriate for solo guitar and for trio. That was one of the goals. I wanted to be able to sit down and play this music, because I know we won’t always be able to play it as a trio in the pandemic time.  

Gear-wise, it was kind of my usual setup, with one alteration. Most of the record is the 470 through the B1G pedal and the Flint reverb going through both the Vibro-Deluxe and the Champ, the ’59 Champ. Kind of 90% Deluxe, 10% Champ, just using the Champ as an overdrive pedal, like a very light overdrive pedal, it almost sounds like a Klon or something. Then a third of the record I’m using an instrument that was gifted to me by a very dear friend, and it’s an old goldtop Les Paul. It’s incredible. It’s a ’55, you know, and in those cases I just turned off the B1G pedal, because that guitar is a big pedal, it has the power in it! It was cool.  

Did you also pull out the Telecaster on occasion? 

Weirdly enough there’s no Telecaster on the record. We tried, and you know, it’s funny, man—I’m starting to learn about recording Tele for myself. I think when I’ve recorded Tele in a small room it feels immediate and feels like what I hear. In this case, largely due to the pandemic, we were set up in a big room, far apart without headphones—because that’s the safety protocol, we all had masks on and we were all tested and we were very vigilant about it, obviously—so we were in this gorgeous big space, and for whatever reason the Tele just didn’t translate. And I was bummed, because I thought, ‘That’s my sound!’ That’s what I think of. But ironically between the 470 and the Les Paul, it sounds like what the Tele sounds like to me, even though it’s not made with the Tele.

If it was a smaller room, or if it was recorded live in a club, I think the Tele would have sounded very similar to how these guitars did in a big room. But, you know, it was one of those learning things: ‘Let’s do whatever we have to do for it to sound great,’ and those two guitars are fabulous. And anyway, I think it came out beautifully.

It’s interesting how things will change up like that in the studio. You assume something will work fine, and for whatever reason it just doesn’t quite cut it. And yet, the lesson that so many great players have proven year after year is that you come out sounding exactly like yourself no matter what you use. 

Bingo. You hit it… That’s good news, too. It’s a good thing! 

And that’s the goal, right? ‘I wasn’t sounding like myself with this thing, so let’s figure out what does…’ 

Oh, you’re so right, and it’s a privilege to work with people who know what you sound like. This was made by Mark Goodell, who’s a great engineer who we were fortunate enough to tour with for a long while too, as a sound engineer, front of house. But yeah, it was that kind of thing. I could look at him and he’d say, ‘No, that doesn’t sound like you,’ and he’s right. And that’s a luxurious thing to have, people who have your best interest at heart and can also translate it, and just be honest with you. 

I’m curious whether you have any general routines in the studio, getting in there with the band and so forth. Everything’s different these days, obviously, but have you usually rehearsed the material pretty thoroughly in advance of the sessions, or are you mainly just bringing it in to get some fresh takes on it, ready to roll? 

Yeah, it’s more [the latter]. I think you nailed it. There’s a heartbeat, to anything, but recording improvised music, right, it’s one of those wonderful studies of, how do you make a document of something that is improvised and has the energy and volatility of something that is spontaneous, but that really rests in a certain sonic space that bears repeating? That’s what the masters teach us. That’s Kind of Blue, right? That’s Blue Train, it’s Solo Monk. You can have it all. It can all be there. It doesn’t have to lose something in order to gain something else. 

And I do think every project’s different. On this record we played for a day before, where the band learned the songs that they hadn’t been playing on the road with me. But I do think there’s maybe a heightened sense of evolution that might happen in the studio that’s different than what’s on stage. And what I mean by that is, each take is kind of a really important iteration for you to evaluate.  

Like an acceleration of the natural evolution of the tunes that happens when you play them on the road night after night. 

Exactly. So, if you do the first take and go, ‘That was great, it has that first-take energy. But now that I hear it, we could take our time, or I think we could go for it even more.’ Then the next take will be drastically different and kind of overshoot it, and next take after that you go for somewhere in between. And that’s what I mean by an expedited evolution.  

I think you’re working through certain details that on tour might happen over the course of weeks, but in this case they’re happening over the course of takes, and that’s a testament to the mastery of Jorge Roeder and Dave King. They can do that thing. They can just kind of snap to where you want the music to eventually be, and you don’t wait for it. They can get you there. 

That sounds like just what you’d want in a creative musical partnership. 

Oh, yeah. It’s so collaborative, and it’s so not about me, you know? That’s the beautiful thing about the human condition, right? At the end of the day, everyone at their best is what we want. I don’t have the disposition to go, ‘Well, I heard it this way, and I need you to get it this way!’ I’m as far from that as possible, sometimes to the detriment where I think, always, my money’s going to be on what I haven’t thought of yet. I don’t have to be the one to have thought of it, and even sometimes I can, I don’t know, keep it conservative so the people involved in the project know that, and know that I’m looking to them to think of what I’m not thinking of, and hopefully they’ll feel supported in it.  

So it’s kind of a… what’s the word, not contrived because that has a pejorative component to it, but there is something that’s very deliberate that you’ve got three days to sound like you had two months, and there’s a lot of ways to skin that cat, so it’s really fun. 

I would imagine this is something a lot of people who are perhaps student players or hobby players or fans of your music, or fans of improvisational music in general, might initially have some difficulty grasping when they consider the process of improvising as a unit. It would be easy to think, ‘oh, you go in and have the band as kind of a template for you, and they vamp behind you and you improvise over it…’ But I would imagine a big part of the joy for you is found in improvising as a unit. 

Oh, absolutely.

And the magic of three guys improvising together—even if one guy’s in the solo at that moment—is part of what makes it special for you? 

Oh, a hundred percent. Whoever’s deemed soloist is by no means the most important feature. It has more to do with, kind of like an orchestra, and orchestrational structure or architecture that you’re buying into. But, we look to the masters, you know? You listen to Ornette, or Dewy Redman or Keith Jarrett or Miles or Jim Hall or Sonny Rollins or any of these, they’ve left us with—and continue to give us—bodies of work that are like the blueprint for how we continue to walk that tightrope, of not having the music getting trapped in some kind of hierarchical nonsense of, ‘Oh, the soloist is king, and everybody else is queen…’  

No! If you just look to the masters, they’ve debunked that over and over again. Even Charlie Parker, whose solos kind of historically can stand without any accompaniment, so supremely, and yet you hear the way Max Roach is playing with him, or you hear the way Dizzy’s responding to him, and you go, ‘Man!’ That’s just what makes are great; it’s decentralized. 

And I suppose the thing to learn from the great players—the guys whose names might be top billing on any session or album or whatever—is that the really best ones are feeling that way themselves. They’re paying total respect to the guys playing alongside them, and not just seeing themselves as necessarily having to be in the spotlight the whole time. 

Oh, no, definitely. It’s an ensemble cast, like any great movie anyone’s ever seen, you know? It’s Star Wars. Who’s the leader of Star Wars [laughs]? And all of this is with so much humility. We’re learning, and we’re lucky to get to do this together. 

Do you ever feel it’s akin to that same thrill that we all experienced as young or beginning players, the first time—after learning the instruments on our own—that we got into a room together with other people and discovered we were really making music together? ‘Oh my god, we’re making something together! We're moving in the same direction…’ The self kind of disappears, right? 

Yep, that’s it, man. To me, that’s the healing power of art. It’s presence, and it’s love, and all those things, by any name. You just disappear, you know? I like that, a lot. 

And we need it these days, too. 

Yeah, we sure do.  

Since last year's series of columns, Julian has released yet another stellar album, View With a Room, available now!


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