With his 2015 album, World’s Fair, Julian Lage offered a solo guitar tour de force—a collection of compositions as remarkable for their memorable melodies as for showcasing Lage’s total command of the steel-string guitar, his ability to coax so many tonal nuances from his 1939 Martin 000-18. Around the same time, Lage began collaborating with Bill Collings on what would become his signature model Collings OM1 JL.
But since then, in leading his namesake jazz trio, Lage has focused on the electric— whether using a Fender Telecaster or his signature hollowbody Collings 470 JL—reaching ever higher levels of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic invention, not to mention technical wizardry. That’s why it comes as a welcome surprise that for his latest EP on the storied Blue Note label, The Layers, recorded at the same time as 2022’s View with a Room, instead of the expected electric, Lage plays his OM1 JL on half of the six tracks, including an intimate duet with guitarist Bill Frisell.
Having previously connected with Lage for AG’s April 2018 cover story, I caught up with the deep-thinking guitarist, composer, and improviser to learn more about his uncommon use of the steel-string guitar in the evolution of his ensemble, as well as collaborating with his wife, singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy, who helps bring a narrative quality to his instrumental work.
For your past handful of albums, your focus had been on the electric guitar trio. What was it about the batch of tunes on The Layers that called for you to play acoustic?
What’s funny is I brought a bunch of guitars to the session, mostly electric, and only one acoustic. Taken as a whole, the two records have about 16 songs. Part of the reason I had an acoustic on standby was in case it felt like there was any fatigue of a certain sound. The first time that the acoustic entered the picture was with this duet with Bill [Frisell] called “This World.” We had rehearsed all 16 songs on two acoustic guitars, even the ones that are electric. And I remember kind of taking note as we went through: ‘OK, “This World” sounds really good as an acoustic arrangement.’
Was the process similar for the other two acoustic tunes on the recording, “The Layers” and “Double Southpaw”?
“The Layers” I had definitely considered electric. But then once we got to playing it and that fatigue came in, I thought, No, switch it up—let’s go acoustic. And then “Double Southpaw” [see transcription in the July-August 2023 issue.] was also planned as an electric trio, but for continuity’s sake with the duo with Bill, I thought, Well, let’s also do that as acoustic, but as a duet with [bassist] Jorge [Roeder]. The music definitely dictated when it felt appropriate to have a change. And it was all in relationship to what we already had, the things that were working so well electrically. We said, Well, let’s not beat a dead horse. Let’s just see if it works. And everything we tried really seemed to work well acoustically.
The Layers seems to be all about different ensemble configurations. What was it like to play acoustic in these settings, and did you discover anything new in the instrument in the process?
I think you are hitting the nail on the head, which is that it was educational. I had recorded with acoustic guitar before and felt like, if not considered, it can have less power than electric guitar. A lot of my fascination with acoustic guitar has been, like with that World’s Fair record, when you have just one acoustic guitar, it actually sounds bigger than a single electric with the band because it just occupies a bigger part of the frame. And so I had always thought that to make the acoustic guitar bigger, you need to have less around you. But—total humble pie, total humility—what I realized is that though that can be true, you can also play acoustic with an ensemble, like that song “The Layers,” which is two acoustic guitars, bass, and drums, and it doesn’t sound small. It just sounds like a different texture.
So I learned a lot about the utility of the instrument—that it still sounds like a leading voice, but by way of its texture, its intimacy, and its sonic profile. And I learned that in large part from making The Layers, whatever you’re doing is the thing that will be noticed. I’m working on a new record right now and thinking about that more: If everything’s equal, what’s the timbre that we want? Which is certainly not novel, but I just kind of thought, Oh holy cow, I never put that two and two together.
I noticed that in the videos for the album, you’re playing your Collings OM. What made it work so well here?
There’s two things about the Collings that stand out to me. One is that its intonation is really good, and the way it resonates, it’s bold. It’s not like the Martin I’ve had for years but is just kind of sitting at home. That old 000-18, I love it, but for it to be in tune means to let certain things be kind of flat or kind of sharp, and that’s when the guitar truly resonates.
The Collings is kind of extreme in the way it is really in tune, which is its own declaration. When the guitar enters, it’s going to be defining what the pitch is going to be. So that’s one thing that gave me maybe a little more wind in my sails as far as blending with Bill and Jorge as string instruments or blending timbrally with Dave King’s drums. The intonation is just so clear on the Collings.
Why do you gravitate toward smaller-bodied acoustics?
In my experience, part of what I love about a true OM or short-scale 000 is the information that’s left out of the guitar. There’s not an abundance of low end that’s swallowing up the mid-range, like you could have on a dreadnought—though there are obvious exceptions: dreadnoughts and jumbos that are perfectly balanced.
With the Collings I feel like I’ve got this really reliable midrange with a little bit of sparkle and a little bit of a honky, almost Tele-like, quality when I want it. Or it’s very gentle, almost like a nylon-string, which I think you hear a little bit more on “This World.” There’s kind of a dulcet thing; the harmonics are just very clear and kind of felt-like. So I think between the intonation and the sound, it’s not like I’m asking the band to come to an instrument that is so idiosyncratic that it makes them stand out too much or feel like they’re walking on eggshells.
Your wife, Margaret Glaspy, produced The Layers. What was it like to collaborate with her in this way, and more generally, how has her input shaped the way you approach your music?
Margaret is an incredible guitarist and singer-songwriter and producer. And I think just as partners in crime for many years, I look to her for being a very honest barometer of the things I’m working on and the things we perceive in the world together. We have a very intimate understanding of each other’s opinions and preferences. And not to say that they’re one and the same, but there’s a lot of mutual respect. So her role in the studio was almost like a traditional producer model. She was in the booth, listening to takes and going yay or nay. And for this project in particular, because it was a quartet of musicians as the dominant configuration in a room with no headphones, I really wanted to be alleviated of the bird’s-eye view.
What did that look like?
I thought my best bet was just to listen as hard as I ever have listened in my life—just to be focused and be available to Bill, Dave, and Jorge. I didn’t really want to be going, Was that a good solo, or did I play too long? Was that too gregarious? So I could easily hand over the satellite view to Margaret. I didn’t take anything really personally. If she said, Well, no—do another [take], I’d go, Great, I’d love to. I didn’t really care; I don’t have that kind of relationship to the music. It liberated me and the band because they trust her, too.
The hardest thing I think to fathom, which was so valuable to us, was when we would play one take, and she’d say, “You’re done.” Because the professional musician part of our brains said, Well, surely this is going to be a process, and we’ll do it until we get it. But that was really cool for her to say, “Nope, you don’t need a backup. You’re not going to do it better. You’ll do it different, but you won’t do it better.”
The other thing is that Margaret’s not easily impressed by things that are specific to, say, jazz guitar, because she’s coming at this as a storyteller. Her business is: Is it a good narrative? Is it a compelling story? And I also love that because I didn’t feel she would get excited about something that didn’t feel universal, like a dazzling, specific guitar part.
Especially on The Layers, what makes those songs compelling is their emotional narrative more than any one guitar moment. And that’s why I think they all ended up being put together as a record, because View with a Room was about grabbing the ear. It was about showcasing the trio [plus Bill Frisell]. It was about showing interplay and swing and these, like I said, more dazzling things. This record is about emotion, and Margaret’s role as a producer really allowed that to happen.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.