Julian Lage’s virtuosity gave Nels Cline a kick in the ass

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Accomplished as he is, Nels Cline had the same reaction as lesser mortals on first hearing the 26-year-old guitarist Julian Lage: sheer amazement. And the awe, it seems, only deepened once the two met in the flesh.

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As Wilco’s celebrated lead player tells it, their introduction was brokered by none other than the late jazz-guitar guru Jim Hall, shortly after Cline moved to New York City.

“I was hearing Jim talk about this Julian Lage, so I looked him up on YouTube,” Cline relates, in a telephone conversation from his home. “Of course, it was a jaw-dropping experience. And then when Julian finally came to one of Jim’s ‘crony lunches’, he turned out to be a delightful young man. We got into guitar-geek mode, so I said, ‘Well, come down to the house and check out this guitar.’ So he came over, and just from playing a few notes his kind of eloquent mastery was evident. It was another jaw-dropper, even though he was just playing a couple of chords. So we started hanging out, improvising together. As a duo, our improvising was immediate and remarkable in our opinion, for both of us.”

Evidence of that is easy to glean from the YouTube clips the two have posted since. But a duo wasn’t what Cline had in mind at first. As he explains, he initially thought to take advantage of Lage’s sight-reading skills and tonal sophistication in an as-yet-unrealized chamber-jazz project. Their rapport required that they take a more stripped-down approach, however: just two guitars, two amplifiers, and four hands.

“The reason I didn’t want to do a duo right away was that I had just done some other guitar duos,” Cline says. “But no: the duo was just a thing, immediately. And now it’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever done.”

The reliably frank 58-year-old adds that a few extramusical factors were also in play. “It came along at a time, to be honest, where I was pretty fried,” he admits. “I was pretty fried on touring; I was pretty fried on myself. I was just kind of recharging, going around New York City listening to shows, storing up some energy. And then when Julian came along the time was perfect for me, because I needed a kick in the ass.

“Certainly, his virtuosity kicked my ass, but also it just inspired me to start working on new music,” he continues. “I initially presented Julian with what I was calling ‘squibs’, very small cells of information that would be connected by free improvisation or that would suggest a way to improvise. And then gradually some songs came together that were more traditional.”

Traditional, that is, for Cline, who admits that his discovery of “space-improv music” in the 1980s squelched his early ambition to be another George Benson or Pat Martino. With Lage, he’s found a creative way to reconnect with those jazz-guitar roots—and to set aside, for now, the mission-control electronics that have become one of his trademarks.

“It’s kind of freeing to not have so many sonic options,” he says. “Now I can concentrate on tone and note choice and dynamics, and I’m really enjoying that.”

Nels Cline and Julian Lage play a TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival show at Ironworks next Thursday (June 26).

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