On Layers, View with a Room, the gritty warmth of his guitar sound
WORDS BY CALEB FREEMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY BY SHERVIN LAINEZ | NEW JERSEY
AUG 09, 2023 | ISSUE 12 | ELLINGTON
Julian Lage by Shervin Lainez
There is a sense of wide-eyed curiosity in Julian Lage when he discusses music. It’s an endearing quality coming from the accomplished guitarist and former childhood prodigy, who once played the Grammys at age 12.
Last year, Lage released the acclaimed album View with a Room, his second release for Blue Note Records and his third as a trio with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King. The ten-song collection featured the addition of guitar icon Bill Frisell and was produced by singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy; it was recorded by Mark Goodell with additional production by Armand Hirsch.
For Lage, View with a Room was an exploration, an attempt to “widen the aperture” of a trio record. He has described it as a “kind of seven-person art project” that attempted to balance lush orchestration with an “organic sense of improvisation and the agility of a small ensemble.” The result was a vibrant collection — infused with blues and swing — that highlighted the trio’s skill and versatility while also showcasing the evolution of their sound through their collaboration with Frisell.
Lage’s newest album, Layers, is a continuation of the experimental voyage he embarked on with View with a Room. A companion album to View, Layers has “all the musical seeds” of its predecessor, according to Lage─the same collaborators, the same vibrancy and sense of exploration. But at its core, the six-song collection is its own creation. It is sparser and more ethereal, more conversational in its expanded focus. Half of the songs find Lage playing an acoustic guitar, a further departure from last year’s record. The collection is another captivating release, one that stands on its own but also sheds new light on its companion.
"The Layers" Album cover
Varsity series - Julian
Julian Lage by Kalya Ramu
sM | The Layers is a companion to your recent album, View With a Room. This is a formula we’ve seen before with Live in Los Angeles, which was a companion to Arclight. Do you conceive of these companion albums as B-sides to their predecessors, or as expressions of something new, but in the same language?
JL ─ In making View with a Room, I wrote a lot of songs and then whittled the album down to about 16. There was a time where Layers was gonna be a 70-80 minute record, kind of like an epic journey. As an experiment, I separated them and said, “Well, suppose the things that are the connective tissue were not used as connective tissue, but as a standalone experience?” And I loved it. That’s how Layers came about. I wouldn’t say they’re B-sides at all, they just originally served a different function. It’s a kind of re-contextualization.
EXPANSION X DISTILLATION
sM | Although there are relatively more layers to this album, it sounds more spare than View with a Room. One of the layers you added to your trio was the guitarist Bill Frisell, and that addition allowed you to achieve “the Technicolor experience” you’ve been searching for. What extra layer of dialogue were you interested in pursuing with this larger role you’ve created for Frisell?
JL ─ I think Bill brings interaction. Fundamentally, there is a communication, a trust that I cherish very much. In terms of him expanding the record into the Technicolor experience, especially with Layers, we are leveraging the power of more guitar information. When that energy is shared with two guitars, suddenly that lead guitar voice is more complex. Not only emotionally, but also in terms of overtones. So you’ve got the relationship with Bill that expands the guitar, and then you’ve got the orchestration of two guitars that expands the picture.
sM | The Layers seems to exist at the intersection of jazz and classical idioms, in terms of balancing improvisation and orchestration and replacing oration with atmosphere. What do you find most interesting about keeping the element of improvisation, while also approaching a diffused atmospheric sound?
JL ─ What I’m struck by in listening to the difference between View and Layers is that I think even more of my voice and the band’s voice comes through when there is an atmosphere. With full humility, what I learned in making those two records is that you can use atmosphere and space as a means of revealing character. You can improvise atmosphere. You can improvise context. It’s almost like improvising lighting design: it casts a big light, but it’s ephemeral. You can’t say why it’s having the effect it’s having.
sM | You took a unique approach to the music videos, with six videos for VEVO all recorded live and in one continuous setting, utilizing really fluid camerawork. How did this concept evolve, and how does this approach capture the improvisational element of this album for you?
JL ─ I think there’s value in presenting two interpretations. You add them together and you get the picture that reveals the studio recording as more deliberate and the video recording as more fluid, more spontaneous, or maybe containing more risk. There’s no law that says you should only hear improvised music, that you shouldn’t see it. With video, and especially camera movement under the direction of Alex Chaloff, who made those videos, I think that tells the story. You go, “Oh wow, these people are doing it in real time!” It’s part of the drama, so why hide it? We like to celebrate it.