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.
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).