Hailed by the likes of Pat Metheny and Kurt Rosenwinkel as the premiere guitarist of his generation, Lage Lund is a Jazz Gallery regular and a staple of the New York jazz scene. His magnetic sound engrosses the listener as Lund paints in broad strokes with wide intervals, carefully interwoven lines, and beautiful melodies. A winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, Lund has toured widely as a leader and sideman, and has released a number of acclaimed albums, most recently Idlewild (Criss Cross, 2015). On December 9th and 10th, Lund brings saxophonist Greg Osby, bassist Matt Brewer, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and young pianist Micah Thomas to the Gallery to take some of Lund’s new music on a test drive. We spoke with Lund about his musical past, his approach to composing new music, and his take on competition in the world of jazz today.
The Jazz Gallery: How were the sets last week with Johnathan Blake?
Lage Lund: They were fun. Johnathan and I used to play a lot in Jaleel Shaw’s band, but it’s been about ten years, so it was nice to have a reunion. We were playing some of Johnathan’s music, as well as tunes by Kenny Kirkland, Mulgrew Miller, a few different things.
TJG: And what will you be playing this week when you bring your own group to The Gallery?
LL: We’re going to be playing all of my own music. I basically have the next record’s worth of music all done, so we’re kind of ‘road-testing’ it a bit. There’s not a specific concept behind it, but I’ve been playing with Matt Brewer and Tyshawn Sorey for at least the last three years, and have been developing this music for them and with them. We’ve been playing around town every few months or so, and I started some new tunes for those occasions. The tunes and the sound began to crystallize the more we played. This is all a part of that process. Usually we play in a quartet format, but for this one I invited Greg Osby, who I’ve been a huge fan of for a long time.
TJG: What are you particularly excited about for this upcoming show? Any tunes you’re looking forward to hearing in this new context, or any new sounds you’re eager to try?
LL: I probably have ten or twelve tunes that aren’t recorded yet, more than enough for what’s going to be on the next record. Some of these tunes haven’t been played a lot, so this’ll be a good chance to get more familiar with them. With Matt and Tyshawn, things are different every time. It’s always kind of a surprise, in terms of where things might go. I’m doing a record in May, and will definitely include Matt and Tyshawn. Regarding Micah, I came across some videos that floored me. I’ve actually never played with Micah Thomas, but have heard some things that were pretty stunning. Such an original sound. I thought it would be a fun opportunity to play together and see how he sounds on my music.
TJG: I’ve read that you wanted to be a professional skateboarder. Was skateboarding popular in Norway when you were growing up, and was there a soundtrack attached to it?
LL: It wasn’t particularly popular, it’s just what my friends and I were doing around when I was nine years old. But it definitely had a music attached to it. I was listening to all the music on the skateboard videos. A lot of stuff like Dinosaur Jr. and Minor Threat, the Southern California punk rock sound.
TJG: Your sound and approach today are so much cleaner than that Southern California grunge. You write counterpoint in your lines, you improvise, you do things not often associated with skate videos. Think the punk is still in there somewhere?
LL: In terms of gear, I’ve experimented with pedals a bit, but that was a long time ago. As I’ve gotten older and have been playing guitar longer, I like pedals, but I’m going for a pretty acoustic kind of sound. What I go for sonically is more along those acoustic lines. There’s a lot of music that’s influenced me since I was young, and that sound is still in there to some extent, but is not the main influence.
TJG: You were the first jazz guitarist at Juilliard. What attracted you to that school, especially when there were other jazz performance programs in the city with guitar students and teachers?
LL: The reason I went to school in New York at all was to get a student visa. I had already gone to Berklee in Boston, which was cool, but I wasn’t necessarily coming here for school, it just happened to be the way I could do it. Juilliard was a financially good solution with the Fulbright, and I had some friends who had gone through the program and told me that it was a good time to enroll. It was great. At the time, it was pretty small, maybe twenty-something students. A lot of great people would come in every week and work with us. The level of the other students was really high as well.
TJG: Is there anything that feels essential to your playing and writing today that you learned while at Juilliard?
LL: Yeah, there was a large emphasis on going back to pre-bebop style players. There was a lot of transcribing Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, which was one of the best things in the program. This music was founded around some of those players, and having the opportunity to study that music is very important. Also, doing things like writing big band charts, which I wouldn’t normally have done, was a great learning experience. I got into writing while I was at Berklee. I would get together with people on a regular basis and read each other’s music, like Kendrick Scott and Jaleel Shaw. I’ve always written music.
TJG: I recently read a piece in NPR about Ethan Iverson’s comments on the Monk Competition, and about what competition can do to professional musicians. You were the first-place winner in the 2005 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition: What are your thoughts on the competitive nature of jazz for young musicians today?
LL: The competition didn’t change my voice in any way. Basically, that was at the end of Juilliard, and I needed to pay my rent. I was playing a lot in the city, but even playing four nights a week, I was barely covering my expenses. So, the competition gave me some breathing room. I thought of it like you would think of another gig. I don’t know if I’ve had a conversation about competitions with other musicians. A lot of people who do these competitions are already working a lot, so I imagine most of them approach it as an opportunity to use their sound to get some breathing room with their schedules, rather than to appeal to a certain style of playing or performing.
TJG: Was competition a part of your musical life growing up? For a lot of young jazz musicians in the United States, they progress through music education via competition. Middle school and high school tryouts and regional contests, Grammy band and Jazz Band of America, college auditions, it’s all very competitive.
LL: That’s a good point, I didn’t think of that. I guess there’s something potentially not good to be said for that, in terms of early development, but it wasn’t the case for me. I didn’t come here until college, so competition wasn’t a part of my musical world. I was never around it, except for the Monk competition.
TJG: You have two daughters, right? Are they musical? And how has having children changed your New York life?
LL: I mean yeah, they’re musical, but they’re one and three years old, so it’s a little hard to tell right now [laughs]. They don’t play anything, not yet. Having kids has changed my life a lot. Lack of sleep, lack of time to practice, those are big ones. Of course, everything has changed. It’s super fun and super draining, so it’s made life amazing, but if I have a show at 10:30 P.M., I’ve already been awake for twenty hours and can barely stand through two sets. It’s also, in a sense, made me more focused. When you don’t have six hours to practice but instead maybe have 30 minutes, you don’t have time to waste. I’ve gotten better at getting to the core of what I need to do.
TJG: Has it changed your composing style? A lot of times, you can’t tell how long it’s going to take to write a piece.
LL: Yeah, it has changed that as well. I go through bursts where I write more, but composing tends to fall on the back burner. If I have forty minutes to practice, I can’t sit there and maybe find an idea, you know? It’s too big a risk. Sometimes a tune comes to you, and then I’ll go for it. But to just sit down and come up empty is not an option right now. Time is of the essence.
TJG: Guitar is how you make your living, how you express yourself, how you communicate with others, how you support your family. Has playing music changed for you as your responsibilities have grown?
LL: I’ve been making my living with the guitar for a fairly long time, so I’m used to it. I’ve been a full-time musician for fifteen, sixteen years now. I don’t think that really changes the music. I’m not thinking “Oh, I have to play good to put some food on the table,” you know [laughs]? When I’m not on stage, that’s a factor, but when I’m on stage, it’s never part of the picture.
Guitarist Lage Lund plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, December 9th, and Saturday, December 10th, 2016. Mr. Lund will be joined by Greg Osby on saxophone, Micah Thomas on piano, Matt Brewer on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.