The world of roots music has been made wider and deeper through the contributions of some key instrumentalists who’ve drawn heavily on jazz to create a new American acoustic music we might call string band fusion. Among them: Béla Fleck, Sam Bush and David Grisman. Those names all came up prominently in my recent conversation with guitarist Julian Lage.
Julian’s one of the most acclaimed young jazz masters in the country - he just made the cover of Down Beat magazine - and he approaches string band fusion from the jazz side of the landscape. Starting with his first solo album, 2009’s Sounding Point, Lage has collaborated with Fleck and with Chris Thile and others. After befriending the Punch Brothers, he formed an acoustic guitar duo with Chris “Critter” Eldridge. Their album Mount Royal was a highlight of last year. Very different is Julian’s new album Modern Lore, featuring a trio with electric guitar, acoustic bass and drums. With its elemental grasp of melody, this is heady jazz attuned to the bluegrass sensibility.
Lage was in Nashville recently for two dates at the Station Inn. In between those shows I caught up with him for a conversation, highlights of which appeared in Episode 49 of The String. Here's our talk in its entirety.
On learning jazz and traditional music at the same time:
I started playing blues guitar. Then I started getting into jazz more seriously because people said, well, that’s how you get better. You study jazz. I wasn’t a jazz nut, I just wanted to get better at the guitar. And around the same time is when I met David Grisman who was a pillar of the Bay Area scene. He introduced me to Bela Fleck - and I would have been around 11 years old. But also I remember David bringing me to play with Doc Watson or Del McCoury backstage. It was all kind of the same thing as far as it was presented to me.
On the evolution of the string band fusion scene:
There’s something about the nature of these instruments in string music in general that is very portable and very practical. You’re talking about a kind of music that can exist at the highest level and have the most impact with people huddled in a circle or in a recording studio or on a stage. It’s very portable in its presentation which can’t be said for a symphony or some kinds of rock or jazz bands. You combine that with the fact we’re standing on the shoulders of giants like Dawg (Grisman), Sam Bush or Bela Fleck or Tony Rice and you combine with a general shift in musical appreciation to unorthodox ways. In many respects I think it’s a really beautiful time for music because there are things that are slightly niche or sub-cultury that are able to be on a main stage. I don’t think that’s the doing of any one group of people. I just think it’s, for lack of a better word, inevitable.
On improvising in the moment and the inspiration of Jim Hall:
Rather than treating it as this holy thing that you have to be perfect at, Jim had a way of being an instigator. He’d play something, he’d wait and listen and see what effect it had on the band. He would then make another decision based on what he heard and the cycle would kind of continue and become very charged in a way you couldn’t get to if you were just the person who was in charge playing great thing after great thing. Jim was so stealthy. I played with him a fair amount and that was something I felt being by his side, is if you were trying to play it safe, he would somehow force you on that tightrope.