A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Tak Tokiwa, courtesy of the artist.

The first-time listener at a Lage Lund gig might wonder, “What’s he staring at?” Considering the snapshot of a guitar resting in his lap while his eyes lock in front of him, the question’s a fair one. But he isn’t in a trance; he’s merely focused on the music of the moment. And however the performance description might label that sound on paper, on the bandstand Lund’s approach remains focused.

“I really don’t care what people—or even what I would call certain kinds of music, because so much of what I love is kind of hard to say,” he says. “And any word is kind of meaningless, too.”

For a guitarist/composer who plays as many kinds of music as Lund does, transcription always has been a tool of the trade, particularly when he was a student at Berklee and later, Juilliard. The act of transcribing opened his ears, and allowed him to get inside the sounds that, at first, were unfamiliar to him.

“(Transcribing) is one of the more helpful things I’ve done for my playing, outside of just playing as much as I can with people who are much better than me. It’s one of the few ways you can kind of get a sense of what somebody’s doing, and try to unlock some of the mysteries and secrets and make them into something that you become sort of familiar with. I tried to not get stuck in a certain era or a certain instrument or a certain type of player, but would go for some type of player who was maybe playing in a way that’s really different from how I would play, or the types of harmonies that I would play. That (was helpful) to widen my perception of what music can be. It’s wide open.”

As many musicians are, Lund was struck by the vastness of the scene when he arrived in New York as a young player. Beyond the myriad styles and experiences artists from all over the world brought to the city, the lack of universal belief in what music “should” sound like excited the Norwegian-born artist. “There’s no consensus on that, really,” he says.

“The only thing is that it’s always at a very high level. It’s not the cheapest place to live or the easiest place to work. You’re there because of the other players, and those players come from all over, and they have all kinds of different backgrounds. So, you have to be open. And listening to a lot of different kinds of music enables that, and makes you want to seek out those experiences. And when you have those experiences, it makes you realize, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of music out there I really don’t know anything about—maybe I need to start filling in those gaps.’”

Born and raised in Norway, Lund moved to Boston after high school, citing the uniformity of sound indicative of a smaller scene as the reason he left his hometown.

“There’s a certain group of players that are the top players,” says Lund, “and they all play together all the time and they kind of develop this way of playing that’s like, ‘what we do here,’ in that town. It can be great, but it’s not going to have the same range and diversity as it does here. (In high school,) I was starting to get really interested in and fascinated by a lot of American stuff, whether it was going back and discovering Coltrane or even a Branford record—or Kenny Garrett or something. And I didn’t understand what was going on at all, but for some reason I really liked it.”

Realizing he wouldn’t come any closer to getting inside the music that mystified him if he stayed in Norway, Lund made plans to explore its geographical and cultural points of origin in the States. He describes the refining of his way of listening after he moved to Boston as a slow progression of checking out unfamiliar music over many years, finally going back—way back—to go beyond the sound he knew.

“Sometimes it would be things that I’d heard for years and years, but never resonated,” he says. “Especially in the beginning, anything like, pre-bebop—it all sounded like old music. I couldn’t really hear beyond that. I always liked Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Christian, but it seemed like, ‘Well that has nothing to do with what I’m doing.’ And it took me awhile to realize that it did.”

For years, Lund felt drawn to 20th century European composers like Messiaen and Hindemith, without being able to articulate or even identify what about their language and vocabulary he found compelling. Playing through their compositions as a deliberate exercise, he began to uncover those essential components, “making sense” of what moved him. Conversely, Lund would hear an artist whose music would have an immediate impact on his playing from the moment he dropped the needle.

“Once in a while there would be somebody I’d never heard of, and the first time it would just be like, ‘Oh, here it is. This is perfect music,’” he says. His first year at Berklee provided him with a number of similar experiences. “Obviously this was pre-Spotify and pre-, like, radio, basically—it was a long time ago. But (Berklee) had a library with tons and tons of music and I would kind of randomly go through it because I would find a record and think, ‘Oh, Joe Henderson is on this—I like Joe Henderson,’ and through that, I would discover someone like Andrew Hill, and I’d be set for the next three years!”

Some of his listening discoveries unfolded as events; others, as extended processes, but Lund finds equal value in both kinds of experiences as they shape his approach to playing and composing. “I think they’re kind of similar,” he says.

“It kind of depends on when you’re ready to hear something. Sometimes you hear something and it’s exactly what you’re looking for right then, and you’re immediately drawn to it. Other times it might be, ‘Well, I don’t know that’s what I need, or will be looking for later—until I realize that that’s really lacking in my playing.’”

Trouble describing original music is a common symptom of the prolific artist, but Lund finds a way to express how he considers his music—by first considering what it’s not. “I don’t think I write ‘serious music,’” he says.

“But I do love a lot of music that I would describe as ‘serious music.’ As I’m writing, I really just try to write something that I would like to listen to. But I think the longer I play and the longer I (continue to) write, I’m—hopefully, at least—getting a little better at just getting to the core of what that song is, or the vibe I’m trying to convey—whatever it might be. For me, it’s trying to get rid of the clutter. I’ve always had a lot of clutter in my writing and in my playing—a lot of unnecessary things that got in the way of trying to have a clear message, musically.

“The way that I write comes out of being very ‘serious’ about developing certain things, whether it’s voice-leading or certain rhythmic things, or first when I’m trying to learn or extend my vocabulary, I try to be very methodical and very practical about that. But whenever I write, it’s kind of whatever comes out. And basically I try to finish it and, once it’s finished, (I) then try to see where are those extra little ornamental, unnecessary, distracting things that tend to pop up, and try to weed those out.”

Allowing what’s naturally brewing to bubble over onto the page is strategic for Lund. “It’s really the only way that I’m able to write,” he says.

“If I try to write a certain thing, it’s just not going to happen. If I’m judging something too much as I’m writing it, then it’s just going to stop. I can always judge it later. If I write a tune, that doesn’t mean I have to play it—or that anyone ever has to hear it.”

Despite what certain students might whisper about his music in the middle of a set break, Lund rejects the idea that he composes in any sort of prescribed context. “I don’t ever write anything where I feel like, ‘This is super complex,’” he says.

“I write it because it’s something I know, or something I’m hearing. I’m not trying to ‘think it out’ like I’m following a certain key system or a rhythmic displacement or taking it through inversions—it’s really nothing like that. And sometimes when I write something that’s complicated, I don’t really realize until I have to write it down. Then I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even realize this wasn’t all just 4.’ So that means I can play over it and it feels natural (instead of) jumping through all these hoops to get to the end of the tune.”

Of the standard advice for younger players, the one piece that resonated throughout much of Lund’s early musical development is explore the unfamiliar. But as he matured musically, feeling comfortable playing in a variety of contexts became the primer; the real lesson would be to feel comfortable playing in a variety of contexts, as himself.

“I play with a lot of different players that write very different music and play in different ways,” says Lund. “And with some of them, when I first started doing it, I was very much out of my element and had to find a way to play a lot different types of rhythms and harmonies without ending up a chameleon—or like, ‘Now I’m playing this style, and now I’m playing this style.’ I had to find a way to do that, and still feel like I’m playing what I hear—what sounds like me. And I think playing with a lot of different people and different people’s music helps you to see what part of your playing is really a style thing, and what part of your playing is really a universal music thing. Context doesn’t really matter, whether it’s a million changes or one chord, or whether it’s a backbeat or very complicated metric stuff.

“When you hear somebody like Coltrane, you hear a name and you hear a sound. But that sound to me is not like a specific line; it’s not like, ‘Oh yeah, that flat 9 on a 13th chord…’ That’s not it. Or like, ‘Oh, this 3-tonic…’ it’s just a certain sound—a certain cry. And that has nothing to do with his incredible harmony or incredible technique or any of that—it’s just a voice. It’s like when you hear somebody you know talk. Whether they’re talking about the weather or something more interesting or more disturbing—it’s still the same voice.”

This spring, Lund faces a new artistic frontier: the solo record. He plans to work through an abundance of written music he hasn’t recorded, including, several shorter pieces that he believes are better suited for solo guitar than for small ensembles. “Some of them are short-form, kind of through-composed,” he says. “Others are not very structured, just a chord progression kind of thing—they move in a different way.”

As far as ensemble music goes, Lund’s upcoming gig at The Jazz Gallery combines longtime stablemates with new blood. He has been playing with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Johnathan Blake for many years, and though he played with Micah Thomas for the first time roughly a year ago, the young artist quickly has become one of Lund’s favorite piano players. “Micah has kind of a language and a zing that I haven’t really heard before,” he says.

The way he feels about his upcoming gig reflects Lund’s position on the twists and turns that have come to define his musical narrative. “I really don’t know what’s going to come out, but I know it’s going to be something unexpected and something great.”

Lage Lund plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, January 19, 2018. The group features Mr. Lund on guitar, Micah Thomas on piano, Matt Brewer on bass, and Johnathan Blake on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission  ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.