In 2002, Norwegian guitarist and composer Lage Lund came to New York on a Fulbright scholarship to become the first guitarist in Juiliard’s budding jazz program. 13 years later, Lund finds himself fresh off a European jaunt with drummer Jochen Rueckert, balancing his time between raising baby girls, releasing two new trio records, and evolving his craft. Noted as a “deftly imaginative guitarist” by The New York Times, the 2005 Theloniuous Monk Competition winner has now released seven albums as a leader. His most recent release Idlewild (Criss Cross), came out in February and featured the stout rhythm team of Bill Stewart and Ben Street.
This April marks the release of Arts and Letters: the second installment of OWL trio, a co-led project between Lund, Orlando le Fleming, and Will Vinson that seeks to explore conversation in different acoustic environments. This Friday, he takes the stage with friends and musical companions le Fleming, Aaron Parks, and Craig Weinrib for a different discussion in the quartet setting. For a moment of refuge, Lund sat down with us over “toasties” at Brooklyn’s Milk Bar to talk about his varied musical—and non-musical—activities.
The Jazz Gallery: You have just released two different trio records—Idlewild and Arts and Letters. Can you share a bit about those experiences?
Lage Lund: I’ve been playing a lot of trio over the past few years. Most of the touring I have done as a leader has been for trio gigs. It was something I started doing, both because I wanted to and because it’s easier to put together than a quartet or a quintet. I started enjoying it more and began thinking about how I could take more advantage of that space. The trio with bass and drums is basically about showcasing my stuff whereas the OWL Trio is a different thing in that it’s completely co-led. Obviously, not having drums gives it a different kind of sonic feel. Part of what we also wanted to do with that group was play in spaces other than the clubs we usually play in. The first record was recorded in a church. The new album was recorded at The American Academy of Arts and Letters. They have this gorgeous old theatre that a lot of classical people have recorded in—people like Yo-Yo Ma. Except for my amp, it was totally acoustic with one stereo pair of microphones. We were trying to use the room as part of the sound—it was a live sounding room that isn’t really be suitable for drums. It changes how we play a bit, it changes the repertoire, all kinds of stuff.
TJG: What about the material for the quartet show coming up at the Gallery?
LL: There will be some new things that I haven’t recorded yet. Basically, I have almost an album’s worth of quartet music that I haven’t recorded yet that I’m still, gig to gig, trying to boil down to its essence. It’s that and it’s all people that I have a pretty long history with. I’ve been playing with Orlando and Aaron since I came here. I started playing with Craig Weinrib three or four years ago and immediately loved it. It’s a long history but the four of us actually haven’t played together yet.
TJG: You mentioned previously that you compose at the piano. Is this still the case and was it always that way?
LL: When I started music at age thirteen, it was on the guitar. I didn’t really start playing piano until high school and college. I can play some chords and stuff but I can’t really “play” piano. I think at some point I just found it easier to write on piano. The guitar can be too familiar sometimes. I might play a chord on guitar and get bored immediately. On the piano, I can play the exact same voicing but I might visualize the next step in a way that I wouldn’t see on the guitar. Because I’m less familiar with piano, it sparks my curiosity more as to what harmonic or melodic changes I might make. I also like to write away from instruments, so I’m not writing something only because it’s coming from my fingers. But, I’m trying to write more on guitar because I might write something away from it but need to figure out how to apply it to the guitar. The whole process is sort of abstract. It’s like I’m hearing something and I’m just trying to uncover it. It’s devoid of any method. It’s hard for me to devote time to it, particularly now with a family. Often, when I’m on the road and have some hours in a hotel, I’ll devote some time to it but it’s not like I always have a set aside time for it.
TJG: Is there a practice routine you follow?
LL: These days [laughs] it’s pretty slim. Once you have two kids, whenever you get a chance its like “whoa!” Organizing your time is really tough. A lot of it is about the next gig or tour. “What’s the music I have to learn?” Usually I have one or two things maximum, some things that I’m working on for a longer period of time. It could be a specific harmonic idea, a certain chord or rhythmic motif. Whenever I do have time to practice, some amount of time is going to be spent on that. If I have an hour, then maybe twenty minutes gets spent on that, but if I have seven minutes before sound check, then I’ll do it for three minutes. Just to check-in every time.
The idea can be very small or very specific. If I’m listening to some Messiaen thing and there is a certain sound, maybe I’ll boil it down to one particular chord. Then, if I have these four notes: what are all of the twenty-eight different ways I can play those notes on the guitar? What are all the inversions of those? What is every possible way I could play this or use this? I think that works the best for me as opposed to working on a lot of different things. When I was younger, a lot of it was transcribing.
TJG: Can you expand on that? How did you learn to develop your musical vocabulary?
LL: When I was thirteen, I was playing things like Dinosaur Jr. I got into music through skateboard videos—Minor Threat and stuff like that. Then I got into slightly more technical stuff like Pantera and Sepultura. I started playing with some friends. I went through a bit of Steve Vai phase that started funneling into John Scofield and Pat Metheny. My dad has a huge collection of vinyl—thousands of records. He wasn’t necessarily a jazz fan but he had some Bird, Billie Holiday, and a good amount of Wes Montgomery. So I just started checking that out, trying to figure it out. I remember trying to transcribe some Bird. I could sort of find the notes but really had no idea, it just seemed like all 12 notes at the same time. That was kind of the start of it. I just kept transcribing a lot of things.
I’m from a really small town. I had a drummer and bassist I played with and I started writing a bit. We would play local bars and stuff like that. After high school, I went to Berklee and all of sudden there were all of these people my age playing acoustic jazz at a high level. I honestly didn’t really know it all existed. I remember hearing these guys and thinking, “Wow, that sounds like that one record I’ve heard…how are they? What?” So then, it was just about figuring out what I needed to know to play with them—people I still play with like Jaleel Shaw, Kendrick Scott, Walter Smith III. I knew I wanted to play like that.
TJG: Are there any specific records that were influential?
LL: I always loved A Love Supreme for some reason. I had no idea what was going on when I first heard it but I liked it. Being from Norway, Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet—that’s your Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong. That’s tradition. I grew up with those records; I like those records. Though [laughs] I would say that the American Quartet actually trumps that now for me. Kind of Blue was important.
LL: Jim Hall was actually later for me. At first, I thought it was nice but not super exciting. It was too subtle; too deep. I was more into Allan Holdsworth [laughs]. It took me a long time to be like, “Oh shit, now I see.” Obviously I had The Bridge, but later when I heard the Paul Desmond and Bill Evans stuff, I really started to see. I went through a super big Andrew Hill phase at Berklee. I just found some records in the library with Joe Henderson—it just blew my mind. I had just never heard music like that before. All of those Blue Note records, they were all killing. Just discovering all of the greats, one after another. Some of them didn’t stick the first time. I think that the first time I heard Monk or Bud Powell, I wasn’t feeling it. Now, that would be some of my favorite music in the world by far. I remember the first time I heard Django Reinhardt, I thought of old movie music—“Cute. Haha. Vibrato! That’s funny.” A couple years later I heard it again and was like, “Dear Lord! How could I not hear that?” I couldn’t believe it.
TJG: You’re a fan of Hari Kondabolu’s critique on American racism: “Telling me that I’m obsessed with talking about racism in America is like telling me I’m obsessed with swimming when I’m drowning.” As a jazz musician, what is your relationship to this discussion?
LL: As a white European dude, coming to play jazz, I am always surprised whenever people seem to have a problem with it being described as black American music. You know, [laughs] what else would it be? Where else did it come from? That’s just clearly wrong. All the great heroes are black American musicians.
Part of me realizes I’m not a “native speaker” but there is something there that I love. I think I can be part of that and do something, but of course I’m going to have some kind of accent speaking it. To call it something different or to then say, “Yeah I’ve taken jazz to the next level,” or “I’ve taken jazz and diluted it,” is wrong. Again, the word jazz is meaningless. In a lot of places, that basically means that we improvise. But when you start to label things, people want to take ownership, or they don’t want anything to do with it. That’s where it can get really convoluted.
The music that I would think of as jazz; if you want to partake in or be part of that discussion, there is a history there. There is a language. To ignore that and say, “Oh I don’t want to know, I just want to do my own thing.” You just kind of end up recreating the wheel over and over because somebody has already done it or you’ve taken away all the elements of that music except for the improvisation, so then why do you want to associate with that? It can take on ugly implications of white people making things their own. I can see how that can be very offensive. It’s clearly not white European music. Music is not separated from society. With what we’ve been seeing happen recently, especially in the last year, it shows how far back that shit is. We’re not that far from the 1960s. That can float under the radar; people are like, “Oh yeah it’s a post racial society.” It’s clearly not. I think most black Americans would never say that. White people say that.
This music that I love is from a specific culture, so obviously there is a lot more connected to that than I know about. Since I love that music and want to try to reference it or understand it through my own music, then I can’t separate it from that part of it. But at the end of the day, when I go to play, I don’t think of any of that stuff. I just try to play what’s honest to me. I’m not necessarily thinking, “Let’s give it up to Charlie Christian.” Obviously [laughs] I’ve transcribed him and I love him, but when it comes time to play, its whatever I’m hearing that night or whatever works with the people I’m playing with.
TJG: Was your family musical growing up? Is that something you hope to engender in your own family?
LL: My dad was a big music fan. He had a huge record collection as I mentioned. He does play guitar but not too much any more. When I was growing up he always had guitars around the house and was basically playing the blues. I grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan—all of these blues-rock guitar players. I hated it! [laughs] To me, that was the sound of boredom. When I was little and he was listening to those records, I was bored and wanted to play. So I just associate that music with boredom. Matt Brewer was playing some Hendrix stuff recently; people have done that before, and I couldn’t, but I’m starting to get it. I think for a long time I was avoiding blues guitar vocabulary because I just wasn’t hearing it.
My wife Joy is great singer and she’s always constantly singing to them. Obviously I’m listening to music at home and sometimes I practice a bit so they’re always around it. My oldest daughter is just starting to get into it. I have a friend who does kids records called Jeremy Plays Guitar. We’ve gone to see his show a couple of times and my daughter just goes nuts! She’s looking around like, “Can you guys believe this shit?” She just completely flips out. She definitely appreciates music.
Lage Lund 4 will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Friday, April 24th, 2015. This performance features Aaron Parks on piano, Orlando le Fleming on bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.