I knew nothing about Julian Lage before beginning to listen to this album, on the recommendation of James Beaudreau (an excellent but little-known musician whose music you should definitely seek out). In fact, I listened to Love Hurts a fair bit before I found out anything about its author, so let’s start there. It’s a guitar-led trio record, using a jazz methodology, but with a vocabulary that encompasses a lot of classic pop music and Americana. The first thing that struck me about it was Lage’s approach to his instrument: he seems to have a kind of honesty or straightforwardness that isn’t a facet of the standard jazz guitar formula. That sounds as though I’m trying to say he rocks out without traducing his credentials as a jazz player, but that’s not it at all.
He does rock out, occasionally, but that’s part and parcel of a sound that celebrates the wonderful ugliness of the electric guitar, without recourse to deliberately contrived abrasive textures. Where other players might try to sound ‘smooth’, to paper over the instrument’s twang and jangle, to ease their passage into lyricism by means of their tone controls, Lage does it all with his hands. He has amazingly clear articulation, a very clean technique which might (and frequently does) lead less creatively rigorous players into a territory of abstract melody, but Lage never elides the physical properties of his guitar—the listener is always aware of Lage’s body, in contact with the steel and wood of his instrument. His playing is incredibly delicate, and when he opens up his dynamics the sound that emerges is full of the kinds of electric guitar noise people make when they first pick up the instrument—the kind of brash, open-string clanging that most players of a comparable facility have devoted their practice time to eliminating. And he makes that harsh twang indescribably beautiful.
There’s a lot of bluesy and triadic material on this record, a lot of simple melody that belies the sophistication with which it is performed. Even Ornette Coleman’s ‘Tomorrow Is The Question’ is presented without any forbidding wall of complexity around it. Lage’s improvisation is never about mincing the harmony fine, and his note choices owe as much to pop and Americana as they do to the history of improvised music. His playing is, however, consistently inventive, and he deploys his inherited vocabulary with a stern aversion to cliché. Such a clear-sighted and uncompromising combination of the accessible with the rigorously creative is only possible in jazz if you can swing like hell, which is exactly what Lage does, from start to finish of this record. Jorge Roeder on bass and David King on drums both contribute precisely appropriate and deeply expressive parts, which sit within Lage’s guitar playing as though they were an integral part of it.
Lage, it turns out, has been a famous guitarist since he was twelve years old, and the expended matches on the cover of this record symbolise his achievement in pursuing a career into his early thirties without burning out. I guess if you start that young, and you do stick with it, you’ll go through your shred phase pretty early—and if you come out the other side of it, you may well display the kind of radical creative maturity this young player exhibits. There’s not really any point attempting to describe his music further: it is a tissue of self-awareness and incredibly sensitive listening, of each musician to themselves and their collaborators. It offers the listening rewards of the best improvised music, that constant, reflexive interplay, that sense of eavesdropping on a conversation (among your elders, if you happen to be a musician of happy mediocrity like myself)—but it offers it without demanding that its listeners travel far beyond their comfort zone, wherever that may be. Musicians like Julian Lage are not a common occurrence, and I don’t often hear albums as good as Love Hurts.