Pianist Kris Davis and guitarist Julian Lage are two hard-to-pin-down musicians. Davis’ and Lage’s individual projects over the years, have engaged a huge range of personalities. For Davis, that includes Terri Lyne Carrington, Craig Taborn, Ingrid Laubrock, and Mary Halvorson; while for Lage, that includes Nels Cline, Eric Harland, Nicole Henry and Fred Hersch. Ahead of their duo hit at The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday and Thursday, they discuss the merits of judgment, cooperative exploration and those persistent playback scaries.
The Jazz Gallery: Musicians are always engaging in conversation, bandstand dialogue, etc. Both of you obviously are very receptive conscious listeners. Kris, to me there’s something about your playing that feels like a very close to literal translation of the idea of conversation, almost a voice speaking. In what ways, if any, do you feel like there’s a connection between your actual speech patterns and your phrasing choices or broad musical choices?
Kris Davis: I guess what I would say is that I’m innately a shy person and some times it’s hard for me to come up with things to say. So when I’m playing music, it’s kind of the opposite. I feel completely free to generate material and express myself. And I think that’s really how I express myself in general.
TJG: When you’re playing, do you feel as though you’re not going to be judge for what you’re saying musically in the way that you might be judged for what you say verbally?
KD: I’m from the school of “There are no mistakes.” It hasn’t always been that way but, at this point, anything I come across, if I think it’s not sounding that exciting or I’m not happy with my choice, sometimes I’ll just stick with it and see where I can take it. Things that might seem dissonant or, I don’t know, things that other people might consider a mistake or a bad sound, to me, I try to come from a place of loving all sound and just rolling with that and going with it.
TJG: That concept relates directly to the practice of reserving self-judgment. Julian, over the course of your career as an artist, have you transitioned into that headspace of being far less critical of yourself than maybe when you began playing?
Julian Lage: That’s a good question. I suppose in certain respects, the stakes seem a little clearer now than maybe they did when I was younger, as far as what’s really at risk, what’s really at stake if I don’t play exactly as I had hoped or it doesn’t go the way I’d wished it would.
KD: Yeah, I understand that sentiment.
JL: As far as critique and judgment, I’m very much aligned with Kris in that respect. I embrace critique as kind of a dramatic subtext. Maybe a player is going about their business and then you hear something happen that you maybe think, “Ooh, that’s awkward,” and then you hear how they reconcile it. I would say it’s like that. It’s very dramatically interesting. And it’s not divorced from judgment per se; it’s just the relationship to judgment is not stifled. I’m pretty blunt. If I play something that I feel is not going well, I’ll say, “That sucked. Cool.” And then if it’s killing, there’s something happening and I might say, “Well that was amazing.” I’ll feel empowered to say, “Did you hear that? I’ve never heard a guitar do that. It’s amazing.” I don’t take any credit for it, but I do think amazing things happen and it’s fun to rejoice.
TJG: This isn’t your most recent release, Kris, but I did want to talk about Duopoly, and I know the two of you collaborated on that one. Did you find yourself playing differently texturally, maybe in ways you hadn’t thought about ahead of time, depending on the other instrument and also the artist?
KD: I don’t really think about it in those terms. I don’t believe that instruments should have roles. It’s about the sound that’s being produced, the ideas that are being thrown out there. So I wouldn’t say I was doing anything differently; whatever I was hearing, I was reacting to.
That was the first time Julian and I played together. I brought in a piece and I didn’t know how it was going to go. We tried it in a bunch of different ways and it’s funny; of all the projects, of all the partners, Julian’s piece, the piece I brought in for him, we played the most takes of because I was still trying to figure out how to formulate it and establish it as a piece between the two of us. But now we’ve played duo so many times, it’s just like second nature. It’s so easy to play together. It’s funny how we kind of had to work through that process and now it just feels totally easy.
TJG: What did you guys discover about your own playing from playing duo over and over together?
JL: Wow. I was just kind of blissfully riding the wave of being close to Kris and listening to her and getting the opportunity to play and feeling like, true to as she said before, I could do no wrong. There was a shared sense of maybe equilibrium as far as balance of texture or tonality, whatever you wanna call it. I don’t know if it was a takeaway about myself as much as, “Oh my goodness. I love playing with Kris Davis.” [Laughs] “Let’s do this more.”
KD: In addition to that, I don’t think either of us came in with any expectations about roles or what the music was going to be, and that’s not true for all the partners I had on the record. Julian was up for trying this composition all these different ways. It was just so easy to work together and explore the piece together.
TJG: Beyond this performance, are you working on anything together at the moment?
KD: Well we’re going to record this, so we’ll have some documentation of a live performance.
TJG: Do either of you get recording studio anxiety?
JL: Wow. That’s a really interesting question. I love recording studios, but I spend more time performing concerts than I spend making records, so there’s always that thing. The closest I think I can get to answering that is to say I’m always in awe of people who are super comfortable in the studio, who just seem relaxed, they feel really at peace to make decisions freely. I definitely strive to have that same degree of ease—just from a conceptual point of view to understand that if I do this, it translates to that. But it’s coming. I’m getting a better sense of it the more I do it.
KD: I get multiple chances to do things. Does that mean that it’s going to get better? It probably gets worse [laughs]. I feel like my takes are usually best as first or second takes, and then…after that…[laughs].
TJG: The fresh takes. I know some artists get crippling anxiety when they’re in the studio, and I’m always wondering, when you’re recording a live show, does that anxiety alleviate at all, but I guess if you guys don’t really have that anxiety, then it’s a hard question to answer.
JL: Your question’s great, too. I think it goes back to how high the stakes are. I think if you know you’re being recorded, that triggers your own sense of worth and how you wanna be represented.
TJG: Oh, god.
JL: It’s not that different from getting your photograph taken. The little micro decisions you make—oh, I’ll wear that shirt instead of that one—or whatever, you can make these considerations knowing you’re going to be documented. What makes it so enjoyable is when you can share that with someone else that you love and respect. With Kris, that’s the feeling where it’s like, I love to make decisions together. But if I were alone or with a different person, I might feel more anxious about them. All [that] to say, we’re very fortunate.
KD: I would say I have more anxiety about listening back [laughs].
JL: Oh, good point.
KD: You know, recording is one thing, but then actually seeing the result—that’s more stressful. I have to really work myself up to listening back to a session.
TJG: Even now?
KD: Oh totally. I have to make sure I’m in a place where I feel stable—emotionally stable [laughs].
TJG: In the interest of time, I’m going to shift gears. Julian, on your most recent release Love Hurts, you seem to invoke elements of that slide guitar sound in your playing.
JL: Oh, cool—sure, sure.
TJG: Obviously, it’s without the slide—I call it that fallin’ off the bone sound.
TJG: I was hoping you could talk about your connection to that sound and that tradition a little bit. Are you sort of spotlighting that part of you in this recording?
JL: You’re the only person that ever pointed that out. And I’d like to mention, too, there’s a historical reference to that style of playing that dates back kind of to the ’20s and ’30s in Hawaii. Hawaiian music had this renaissance in the continental U.S. and it kind of lined up with the invention of the electric guitar—what you’d call Spanish electric guitar, which is everything that’s not a slide guitar. There was this type of expression that was becoming really popular that was coming from Hawaiian music. It got coopted by some of the early electric guitar players like George Barnes, not so much Charlie Christian, I’m talking five to eight years before Charlie, Al Vito Ray, one of the great band leaders; the first Spanish electric guitar to be played on the radio was played by him. There’s this kind of forgotten era of this slippery guitar playing. I think it was probably connected to the fact that there was this new sound that literally amplified movement. What would have been lost on a recording all of a sudden was being read through magnets and out of loud speakers. All that to say it was kind of a fetishy era of guitar.
And then things chilled out, people said, “Okay calm down, calm down. It’s just an electric guitar.” And things got really fortified. But that’s my connection to slide. It’s always been that beautiful era that’s not really connected to blues and it’s not connected to any real style. It was almost more like a Vaudeville act. And you’re the only person that’s ever noticed. that’s cool that you heard that.
TJG: That’s really cool that you know that history.
JL: Well I’m a nerd.
TJG: Kris, I’m going to pose this question to you first, but I’d like you each to respond, if you would. I don’t want to know how you respond to it, but I want to ask how you feel about the question, “What kind of music do you play?”
JL: You go first Kris.
KD: [Laughs] If you have an idea, you should go first.
JL: I’m a total jazz guitar player. And I like the question. I think it’s orienting for me, and I respect that it’s not always orienting for other people. There’s a time in my life when I would have deflected in discussion and say, “No, I play this kind of music,” or, “No, it’s improvised,” or it’s this or that. But if I just kind of look at my life and the people who were my teachers, I’m coming out of Jim Hall and a very specific lineage of players. I think jazz is awesome. So I’m a total bona fide jazz guitar player. And I think that helps me, on some psychic level, just calm down [laughs]. My relationship to [that question] is a positive one. I guess that’s my answer.
TJG: Thank you. Kris?
KD: [Laughs] Uh, well…I would also agree. I started as a classical pianist and transitioned to jazz in my teens. That’s also what I studied in school and my teachers—I would also say that I’m a jazz pianist. I would also say, if I had tried to have a career as a jazz pianist, coming from that tradition and that education, then I don’t I’d be where I’m at, at this point. So I had to go and explore some other kinds of music and figure out how I could use those to inform my ideas as an improviser. So, going through some contemporary composers, classical composers, helped sort of forge that direction. And then also just discovering improvised music, checking out Andrew Hill and Cooper Moore, real free improvisers, [helped]. So now I’m kind of coming full circle and in playing more over forms—traditional jazz forms—all those things are informing how I’m actually playing that; whereas, if I had just stayed and played bebop, which I love, I’m not sure I would have the same kind of depth that I do now.
JL: Really well said.
TJG: You guys have had very different experiences in your paths toward “recognition” outside your musical colleague circles. So what would you say to young artists who are out there playing maybe some new stuff and no one outside their fellow artists seems to be paying any attention?
KD: Great question.
JL: That’s a hard one, yeah.
KD: This really is also to the issue of gender. You just have to focus on the music. You have to figure out your interests and really going deep into the tradition and studying it and figuring out what you wanna take from it and make it your own. So I would say to young artists, don’t worry about… just the adage, “If you take care of the music, the music will take care of you.” It’s totally true.
JL: Yeah. I second that 100 percent. And there’s a correlation often figured out, but to explicitly say it, you don’t have to be around assholes. It’s not a rite of passage to be mistreated for any reason or put yourself under a lot of pressure, to say, “It can’t be this easy, so I need to put myself in a compromising situation—whether that’s to be intimidated, or…” I feel fortunate to really have been around good-natured people and have avoided those who weren’t. I’ve been at these junctures where I’ve said, “What the hell am I doing?” And then I look around and I see people who are kind of model examples of how to lead a creative life and I go, “Oh, I might be lost, but I sure like what they’re doing.” That’s worth a lot to me.
KD: That’s a really good point. And it’s true just because I’m always asked about gender in this time, at this juncture. But that’s also true for me, where, if I didn’t feel like I would be accepted, I just found people that would accept me. And that’s how I ended up on the improvised music scene where there were no rules. Bring your creative soul, and let’s go.
Kris Davis and Julian Lage play The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday and Thursday August 21-22, 2019. The group features Ms. Davis on piano and Mr. Lage on guitar. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.