Photo: Alysse Gafkjen.
Julian Lage Talks His Blue Note Debut 'Squint,' Eyeing Tradition From A New Vantage Point
The blazing jazz guitarist Julian Lage was once an upstart under the wing of Jim Hall. Now, with 'Squint,' he's strolled into Blue Note's hallowed halls with a fresh perspective on his instrument
Ever hear of the "iceberg" theory of success? As writer Thomas Oppong puts it, it’s the notion that people only “see the end goal, the glory, the monumental win.” Julian Lage's performance of "I'll Be Seeing You" at the defunct L.A. club the Blue Whale is a perfect example of the metaphor.
In the clip—which, at press time, has garnered more than two million views—the then-28-year-old Lage plays the jazz standard with utter panache. Watch him observe a momentary interchange between bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen, silently ponder for a moment like a contractor studying a foundation, then apply just the right swinging, melodic information. Ergo: The performance is the tip, jutting out of the water, obscuring a submerged mass.
Lage didn't pop up like this fully-formed; he simply worked harder than almost anybody else. This involved honing his natural voice in his discipline. Recently, he watched a video of himself playing as a child: "I sounded better then," the virtuoso tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom with a grin. "Because I didn't question it. There were a lot of years of questioning it and wondering about it. But essentially, it's the same kid."
While Lage has been around for many years, in some ways, he's just getting started. That's because Squint, his debut album on Blue Note, releases June 11. Being on their roster puts Lage among some of the greats of all time: John Coltrane, Grant Green, Joe Henderson, scores more—and this development may just be charting a course for the rest of the 33-year-old guitarist’s career.
Co-produced by Margaret Glaspy and Armand Hirsch, the album features bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King, running through a set of Lage originals like "Boo's Blues," "Familiar Flower" and "Short Form."
Throughout the Zoom call, Lage is kind, mild-tempered and communicative, asking as many questions as answering them. His demeanor says a little something about his dialogue with his trio on Squint: He listens as much as speaks.
GRAMMY.com caught up with the guitarist to discuss the aesthetic of Squint, his relationship with Blue Note's legacy and why everyone has a creative voice—even if they think they don't.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What's your relationship with the Blue Note catalog, and how did you perforate their sphere?
The most obvious thing is as a fan, as a jazz musician, Blue Note is the mecca of recorded music. All the greatest records come from Blue Note. Since I was a child, that's been the guiding light. McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Grant Green, Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson, [John] Coltrane—all these artists are synonymous with what I think is the Blue Note tradition.
That's the legacy of Blue Note, but at the same time, they've been such a supporter of new artists for such a long time. Those artists, in their day, were new as well. So I think there's always a sense that as a jazz musician, it would be a dream to be on Blue Note because they cultivate musicians, support innovation and understand jazz as an artform—the social constructs that exist within jazz and the fact [that] it is [an] abstract art.
It's helpful to treat it as such. Not as failed popular music … I know [Blue Note president] Don [Was] is one of the greatest cats around … As I was looking around for a new label partner, it was just an organic fit [.]
They've been wonderful. Don's a friend of mine. I used to teach his son at Stanford Jazz Workshop. As I said, he's a fellow musician, so there's mutual respect. Just kindness. He's only been supportive. When I was making this record, I sent him demos and [asked], "What do you think about this?" He said, "This sounds great, keep going!" or "You can do less of that," or "More of this." He's just present. He's really present. And I think that brings out the best in everyone around him.
When it came time to record Squint, how did you arrive at this particular aesthetic—a trio album, featuring these songs, with this specific production style?
I've been playing with this trio now for a couple of years, so it wasn't so much arriving at it. It was understood that this is my project, this is a thing I've done for a couple of records and we would feature it on Blue Note. It wasn't a diversion. That was already in play.
You hit the scene young. Was it challenging to be public-facing as a kid?
No, I grew up in a different era. Nowadays, there's more potential for exploitation, just being everywhere, being on video, being on social media. I [grew] up in the mid-to-late '90s and early 2000s, so I just practiced a lot of guitar. When I would do things that were public-facing, they were usually very professional.
There was no middle ground. I was home practicing the guitar or I was on the GRAMMYs, or I was home practicing guitar or I was with Gary Burton's band traveling. It made it very clear. It was always very professional. There wasn't this constant [sense] of being on display and self-reflecting. That was my choice, too. I think if you wanted that, you could do it.
But to be a young person today with YouTube and Instagram, there are a lot of pressures I never felt. I just felt I had a head-start, in a way: "When I grew up, I wanted to do this, so I'd better work hard now on it so someday I can maybe do this." I have empathy for any young person today and their parents because it must be weird to navigate the seduction of it.
Like the lure of wanting to court more followers?
Sure. Even the concept of cultivating fans never would have occurred to me for the first 15 years of my life. You're a practitioner. You're just trying to do the work.
It's funny: I have some students. To me, they're students. They're young, but in their world, they're like Instagram-influencer kinds of people. It's interesting hearing them talk about the pressures. It's very aggressive. It's a popularity thing. I don't envy needing to keep that going, but I do think it's seductive. It's gratifying; it's cool. Why wouldn't you? I get it. I just wasn't around that energy growing up, so I can't relate to it.
How did you develop your own "voice" on your instrument? Most of us start out copying other guitarists.
I never was that good at that. I couldn't sound like the people I wanted to. I struggled with it. I learned solos, but it didn't catch. I know players who do. They have that power of metabolizing music and being like, "Here it is again!" I just never was that good at it. I'm still not.
I come from a certain tradition of thinking about it, which presupposes that everyone has their own musical voice the same way they would their own speaking voice. A lot of the attention that's required is really about just contextualizing parts of your voice that you feel are worthwhile.
I think what that means for me over the years is, "What does it look like when it's super virtuosity-forward? Do I like that contextualization? Do I like it more when the contents I write are to support the lyricism or melodicism?" I think, whether I like it or not, there's a voice there. It's not for me to like or dislike, but I do have the ability to frame it in a way that feels sincere.
Recently, I saw a video of myself playing when I was a kid. I sounded exactly the same. I sounded better then, in many respects, because I didn't question it. There were a lot of years of questioning it and wondering about it. But essentially, it's the same kid. That's how I hear it.
From the guitar tradition, which wells did you draw from while making Squint?
It's a lot of swing-based music. A lot of this record is a study of, frankly, medium swing. 4/4 music. It's more centered on that time feel and that cadence. So, if you have something like "Boo's Blues" or "Squint" or "Familiar Flower" or "Short Form," they're all kind of orbiting the same DNA, feel-wise.
The interaction with it, on one song, might be more learning toward Lennie Tristano's tradition of feeling the swing pulse. I think something like "Squint," is more in that tradition. Then, you have something like "Familiar Flower," which is more of an ode to Old and New Dreams—the way Ed Blackwell and Charlie Haden would have felt time. And Dewey [Redman] and Don Cherry.
It's not about locking together. It's kind of like everyone has their own place, own tempo, own variation, and it just kind of goes and builds this beautiful tension. Then, you have "Boo's Blues," which is far more aligned with the Art Taylor, Billy Higgins tradition coming out of Dexter Gordon. That's a different thing. Also in the Blue Note tradition. That's a major musical context: Looking at the same feel from different perspectives.
Photo: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images
Rosalía Announces First Solo North American Tour
El Mal Querer Tour, named after the Spanish pop star's latest album, will come to Los Angeles on April 17 in between her Coachella performances
Rosalía is set to perform at some of the most popular music festivals around the globe, including Primavera Sound in Spain, Lollapalooza (Argentina and Chile) and Coachella, but the Spanish pop star isn't stopping there when she gets to the States. Now, she has announced her first solo North American Tour with a string of dates that will bring her to select cities in the U.S. and Canada.
El Mal Querer Tour, named after her latest album, will come to Los Angeles on April 17 in between her Coachella performances. Then she'll play San Francisco on April 22, New York on April 30 and close out in Toronto on May 2.
"I’m so happy to announce my first solo North American tour dates," the singer tweeted.
Rosalía won Best Alternative Song and Best Fusion/ Urban Interpretation at the 19th Latin GRAMMY Awards in November and has been praised for bringing flamenco to the limelight with her hip-hop and pop beats. During her acceptance speech she gave a special shout-out to female artists who came before her, including Lauryn Hill and Bjork.
Rosalía has been getting some love herself lately, most notably from Alicia Keys, who gave the Spanish star a shout-out during an acceptance speech, and Madonna, who featured her on her Spotify International Women's Day Playlist.
Tickets for the tour go on sale March 22. For more tour dates, visit Rosalía's website.
Walk, Don't Run: 60 Years Of The Ventures Exhibit Will Showcase The Surf-Rock Icons' Impact On Pop Culture
The exhibit, opening Dec. 7, will feature late band member Mel Taylor's Gretsch snare drum, a 1965 Ventures model Mosrite electric guitar, the original 45 rpm of "Walk Don't Run" and more
Influential instrumental rock band The Ventures are getting their own exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles that will showcase the band's impact on pop culture since the release of their massive hit "Walk, Don't Run" 60 years ago.
The Rock Hall of Fame inductees and Billboard chart-toppers have become especially iconic in the surf-rock world, known for its reverb-loaded guitar sound, for songs like "Wipeout," "Hawaii Five-O" and "Walk, Don't Run." The Walk, Don't Run: 60 Years Of The Ventures exhibit opening Dec. 7 will feature late band member Mel Taylor's Gretsch snare drum, a 1965 Ventures model Mosrite electric guitar, the original 45 rpm of "Walk Don't Run," a Fender Limited Edition Ventures Signature guitars, rare photos and other items from their career spanning six decades and 250 albums.
“It’s such an honor to have an exhibit dedicated to The Ventures at the GRAMMY Museum and be recognized for our impact on music history,” said Don Wilson, a founding member of the band, in a statement. "I like to think that, because we ‘Venturized’ the music we recorded and played, we made it instantly recognizable as being The Ventures. We continue to do that, even today."
Don Wilson, Gerry McGee, Bob Spalding, and Leon Taylor are current band members. On Jan. 9, Taylor's widow and former Fiona Taylor, Ventures associated musician Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and others will be in conversation with GRAMMY Museum Artistic Director Scott Goldman about the band's journey into becoming the most successful instrumental rock band in history at the Clive Davis Theater.
"The Ventures have inspired generations of musicians during their storied six-decade career, motivating many artists to follow in their footsteps and start their own projects," said Michael Sticka, GRAMMY Museum President. "As a music museum, we aim to shine a light on music education, and we applaud the Ventures for earning their honorary title of 'the band that launched a thousand bands.' Many thanks to the Ventures and their families for letting us feature items from this important era in music history."
The exhibit will run Dec. 7–Aug. 3, 2020 at the GRAMMY Museum.
Photo by Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images
Alicia Keys Unveils Dates For New Storytelling Series
The artist will take her upcoming 'More Myself: A Journey' biography on a four-city book tour
After performing her powerhouse piano medley at the 62nd Annual GRAMMYs, R&B superstar, GRAMMY-winning artist and former GRAMMY’s host Alicia Keys has revealed that she will set out on a four-stop book tour next month. The storytelling tour will support her forthcoming book More Myself: A Journey, which is slated for a March 31 release via Flatiron Books and is reported to feature stories and music from the book, told and performed by Alicia and her piano, according to a statement.
Part autobiography, part narrative documentary, Keys' title is dubbed in its description as an "intimate, revealing look at one artist’s journey from self-censorship to full expression." You can pre-order the title here.
The book tour will kick off with a March 31 Brooklyn stop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From there, Keys will visit Atlanta’s Symphony Hall on April 5 and Chicago’s Thalia Hall with Chicago Ideas the following day, April 6. The short-run will culminate on April 7 in Los Angeles at the Theatre at Ace Hotel.
Pre-sales for the tour are underway and public on-sale will begin on Friday, March 6 at 12 p.m. Eastern Time. Tickets for the intimate dates and full release dates and times are available here.
Keys won her first five career awards at the 44th Annual GRAMMYs in 2002. On the night, she received awards in the Best New Artists, Song of the Year, Best R&B Song, Best R&B Album and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance categories respectively. She has received a total of 29 nominations and 15 GRAMMYs in her career.
This year, Keys will also embark on a world tour in support of Alicia, the artist’s upcoming seventh studio album and the follow up of 2016’s Here, due out March 20 via RCA Records.
A Tribute In Black To Johnny Cash
A star-studded roster of GRAMMY-winning talent celebrates the music and 80th birthday of Johnny Cash in Austin, Texas
Though Johnny Cash passed away in 2003, he's having a very good year in 2012. The latest in a series of events honoring the man in black — an 80th-birthday tribute titled We Walk The Line: A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash — drew a slew of GRAMMY-winning performers to Austin, Texas, for a lively Friday-night show on April 20 at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater.
Top billing went to Cash's surviving Highwaymen brethren, GRAMMY winners Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, who teamed with Shooter Jennings (son of late GRAMMY-winning Highwayman Waylon Jennings) and Jamey Johnson in a reunion of sorts on the song "Highwayman." Under a large banner bearing an image of Cash strumming a guitar, flanked by two silhouettes, Nelson also teamed with GRAMMY winner Sheryl Crow on "If I Were A Carpenter."
Crow sounded almost as if she were addressing Cash when she joked to Nelson, "I would definitely have your baby — if I could. If I didn't have two others of my own. And if you weren't married. And if I wasn't friends with your wife."
Audience members cheered lustily in approval, as they did throughout most of the show, a taped-for-DVD benefit for the childhood muscular dystrophy foundation Charley's Fund. Just hours earlier, many of them had watched as Nelson helped unveil his new statue in front of the theater, which sits on a street also named after him.
The event was produced by Keith Wortman with GRAMMY-winning producer Don Was serving as musical director. Was recruited Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, Kenny Aronoff, and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Ian McLagan of the Faces as the house band. The handpicked all-star roster of performers ranged from Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, Brandi Carlile, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Andy Grammer, Amy Lee of Evanescence, and Pat Monahan of Train to Ronnie Dunn, Shelby Lynne, Old 97's lead singer Rhett Miller, Lucinda Williams, and even Austin-based actor Matthew McConaughey, who, in addition to emceeing, sang "The Man Comes Around."
"We wanted a real broad, diverse group of artists," Wortman said backstage. "With Cash, you're as likely to find his music in a punk rock music fan, a heavy metal fan and a Nashville music fan, so he's not just a country music guy."
GRAMMY winner Monahan, who sang Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night," commented before the show, "I think of Johnny Cash as a style, as you would think of clothing, or music or whatever. He was his own thing. No can can really describe Johnny Cash entirely.
"And no one could deliver a song quite like him," continued Monahan. "He sang hundreds of other songwriters' songs and he made those songwriters important because of the way he delivered what they were saying. There's not much that I don't respect about him, and I told his son [John Carter Cash] earlier that I'm almost more inspired by the love for his family than his music."
Lynne, who won the Best New Artist GRAMMY in 2000, sang "Why Me Lord," another song penned by Kristofferson, and delivered a spirited duet with Monahan on "It Ain't Me Babe," said Cash has influenced "all of us."
"We appreciate the majestic rebellion that Johnny gave us all in the music business. And he's also one of the great American icons of all time," she added.
Among the acts who earned the loudest applause in a night full of high-volume appreciation was the GRAMMY-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, the bluegrass quartet re-exposing the genre's African-American roots. Their rendition of "Jackson" was among many highlights. Earlier, co-founder Dom Flemons revealed the personal inspiration of Cash's catalog.
"Johnny Cash's music has had an impact on me as a rock and roll singer, a country singer, as a folk music performer and great interpreter of song. I just love everything that he's done," said Flemons.
Bandmate Hubby Jenkins added, "Johnny Cash was really great about putting emotional investment into every song that he sang."
Co-founder Rhiannon Giddens said Cash’s core was his voice and his subject matter, and no matter how much production was added, it never diluted his message.
Miller, who named his band after "Wreck Of The Old '97," a song popularized by Cash, said their intent was to sound like "Johnny Cash meets the Clash." He also recalled always picking "Ring Of Fire," a classic inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1999, on the tabletop jukebox during childhood visits to a Dallas diner.
"I didn't know what it was about, but I knew that the guy who was singing it was singing it with everything he had," said Miller, dressed in black in homage to "one of my all-time heroes." "And there was so much heart behind it, and so much conviction. And nobody could sell a song like Johnny Cash. He meant every word he said, and if he didn't mean it, he made it sound like he meant it."
(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis currently contributes to American Songwriter, NPR's Song of the Day and newspapers nationwide, as well as several regional magazines and NPR-affiliate KUT-FM's "Texas Music Matters." A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen from A To E To Z, she has also previously written for Rollingstone.com and Paste magazine.)