Julian Lage Trio, Empoli Jazz 2018

(This is bad english, as I am not a professional translator. Sorry for that. If you have any suggestions, please let me know in the comments. Thx.)

I arrived a couple of hours in advance, in company of my sister, on a tuesday with 38 ° C, the city seems totally deserted, all  one-storey houses, hundred of years old. empoli, known mainly because in italian spelling you say „e come empoli“ (A like alabama), and it’s cheaper than florence, but only 20min away.

It is an open-air concert, in a kind of yard or park, on the green grass behind a very old wall stands a stage, next to it a party tent as an artist’s room, separated by a few bars. Maybe 200 chairs, a stand with local beer and a huge roast, from one of the sponsors of the event. We find a place in the second row, I’m in conversation with a few others, a man in his mid-thirties is pleased: „I would have gone abroad for them, and now they come to empoli!“ I laughed and was relieved that I’m not the only crazy one around. He has seen him a couple of times already, we are both happy that Lage takes the slow road uphill and does all these small and various jazz festivals. I am still a little bit flabbergasted about the fact that I can attend a live concert of my serendipitous net discovery, and for the third time in two years. It really is a great gift. We talk about bluegrass, Chris Eldridge, Nels Cline, the jazz and the summer in general, everybody is exited. Slowly it gets dark and a bit cooler, at 21:30 the three musicians move over from their tend to the stage. Lage did a fist bump with his drummer before stepping out of the tent, for me a reminder of what such a concert means for the musicians and a little curiosity as to whether it is very different for us listeners. This is the last concert of the tour, the next day they would fly back to the usa, as the organizer told us during a brief introduction.  Their next concert is only 5 days later, a rather short time to get some rest.

Lage has been traveling with these two for a while, Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Doob on drums, the tour went through spain and france. The evening starts with some gripping and good-humored pieces from the last cd (Modern Lore, 2018 with Mack Avenue Records), after the first songs from the CD Lage announced a few favorite pieces, „songs that we like“. The first is a version of „The Best Thing for you“, by Irving Berlin, it comes along as a fine and elegant and beautiful in an unexpectedly  free way. They played the very sweet Nocturne, as always Lage moved through the song with great liberty, playing with it, then plays around for a while with improv that seems both tender and a tiny bit brash (schnoddrig), but he always comes home at the end, and creates those small harmonic enclaves, even in the last breath of the songs. Nocturne already has a dangerous amount of beauty in the melody, and Lage creates a few more rounds, keeps tightening some beats, repeats a resolution – it’s like seeing someone after a while, and he has a quite different beauty than remembered – first I wrote „is much more beautiful“, but beauty in music is something different than in humans, more surprising and diverse. Those melodies have a breezing charme. I always want to hear these passages again, as soon as they are over, to relive them, and I miss them immediately after they are gone.  A good reason to see those guys in concert again and again. They played another favorite song, I still have the melody in my head, but can not assign it. It probably wasn’t Splendor Riots, but hey -it was a week ago, and I didn’t have Internet until now.

The drummer (Eric Doob) is somewhat strange in an elaborate way, he plays immersed in high concentration, like a boy, seems to have perfect, endless compositions in his head, and when he has his solo, he releases only fragments of these things, it sounds like a short cut, or stenography, barren and taken together. Lage looks at him with a smile, as if he could hear the unplayed passages. Maybe I just miss  Tom Rainey – if you want to say a lot and only get a few words out, in which then everything has to collect more weight.

The bassist has his fans in town (don’t they always?), after the concert he is greeted by a group that compliments him and asks about his playing. He was obviously very good, and maybe I just have difficulties understanding the fast navigation through the scales, I like noticeable breaks, rhythms, melodic closure, something to break the linear listening, otherwise I just admire the speed, but life is already fast enough, and I’m not really touched by it.  Could be I just am not used to it, I didn’t listen to much jazz since my twenties, until in a stormy night I discovered Lage and Eldridge on the glorious Internet.

Lage’s virtuosity came along with a summery insinuendo, a lightness, as if his fingers did not have to be quite on the strings, but could go ahead to the next note a mü (very very very short time) before coming down with all their weight. In a video of a lesson I found on YT, he says: “You […] just meet the string and then move the pick out of the way”, so maybe the reason lies more in the kind of movement Lage does with his playing hand, not the fret hand. It seemed to be more a question of completion than of impact, but my hearing is not so good anymore, plus tinnitus, which creates a grayed-out area in the ear.
Then he plays these casually suggested melodies, just for a couple of beats, a chord, a note, each with room for a whole song, perfect seconds of bliss (well, it was a night in a medieval courtyard, under the stars of july, on the grass, with a distance of just a few meters to my favourite musicians). He dissolves the songs with slightly surprising harmonic ideas, and there is much beauty in the difference between what your musical mind expects as harmonic closure, and what he comes down with.  They are his style, recognizable as his own, as the painting stroke of horst janssen (famous german drawer) is recognizable,  distinct and beautiful in an unique way.

(Yeah, and what did Barthes say about using adjectives to describe music?)

After the concert, the musicians go to their tent, a few meters from the stage. I’m looking for CDs to get a signature, but as the bassist tells me, they do not have any on this tour. Lage comes back to the stage a second time, after clearing the instruments, for a few pictures with the crew of the jazz festival. I stand around indecisively, my sister takes over and goes ahead. „Come on, we ask him if you can have a picture with him“ – I’ll ask, says the employee, and he, friendly and confident, shakes hands with two unknown ladies after a two-hour concert, then puts himself between my sister and me, the employee takes some pictures. Poof. You clearly do not do that, we were overstepping our boundaries. Like with love, I know that now, beeing a fan can catch you full force at any time and send your education to orbit. I’m sorry.

The trio seems to be on tour all the time, in october and november in europe, this time switzerland and france, they are rocking all the small finnish clubs, in october of this year in Singen, but that is too far for a spontaneous trip from berlin. On the other hand, it may be one of the last possibilities to get the special intimate quality of a concert in a small place. In march 2019, the trio will play in a hall of the elbphilarmonie, higher priced tickets included. They have noticed him, the big ones in europe.

My (musically uneducated) feeling: he loves and needs a challenge, not in the sense of a gig at places like the elbphilarmonie, but in the form of a counterpart on his same level of musicality. Maybe other ingenious guitarists, as Nels Cline is one, with his own style, his own edges, musical friction and challenge, a dialogue, perhaps with himself by way of someone else. Lage did something with the pianist Fred Hersch, or with Bill Frisell, with the saxophonist Dan Blake, and of course with Gary Burton.

After the concert, the city is suddenly jam-packed, at midnight there are hardly any free seats left on the streets, families, children, young and old sit around and drink and talk. On the piazza dei leoni a wine tasting takes place, we treat ourselves to two excellent red wines, watch the children for a while and then go back to the air-conditioned hotel.

Nels Cline 4 at Zig Zag Jazz Club

As soon as the musicians were on stage, several cell phones went on in the audience. Guitars were googled. I like the idea of ​​people buying an instrument or hoarding their knowledge about them because someone else is playing well. I’m very open towards other mechanisms of virtual and symbolic appropriation.

Cline (who has a twin brother playing the drums) had the mic, but did not say anything, just started to play, after a glance at the fully booked hall. And then, after a few seconds, the guitarists drifted out of my focus, and my attention shifted to the drummer. He was so good, he took a lot more space than just a rhythm line, a rich and thoughtful space. You may know this brief sense of correctness and realisation when switching from 2D to three-dimensional on Google Earth, from rectangles to houses, from spots to trees, or from mountains to the world. As if it were an evening with Tom Rainey and band. So that’s what it really sounds like to play the drums.

I do not know if this is just the way things are done  these days anyway, but after this first piece I was awake and attentive again.

(The first concert of the evening were two very very free jazzmen, the Kropinski-Heupel duo, one on transverse flute and even bass flute, playing something like scrambled scales, breathless, without beginning or end or any other hommage to my ears. I listen to it and think „ah, interesting“ and find no access, but I do not know if there is any access at all, or just l’art pour l’art. On the other hand: A guy from the audience told me about a concert he attendet while beeing with the military in the GDR, and how free jazz saved his soul, that is, of course, an excellent argument.)

The music and the tracks (as content and form) were mostly from Cline, and there was everything in them, they are highly complex systems,  all have an end (I do not like finishing on a jinglejangle, nor with a fadeout), are mini-worlds. Swing ghost ’59 is really great, even though I do not understand what I’m hearing, just that it has it all. And it is beautiful and funny. It is exiting to listen to highly different pieces of musical structure, known and unknown, coming together into a work of art, or rather interlocking them like magic, as if Cline had started on something divine, would have retro-engineered it, and that’s what came out of it. (I am a bit hypoglicemic)

This time Julian Lage for my taste was not central enough, he had some fun and played a lot, but today it was about a band, it was a concert evening, with the songs more center stage than the heroes. No dialogue between guitars like in Milan, all of these four outstanding musicians were on an equal footing. The bassist was Jorge Roeder, a different guy  than the one on the CD. Maybe this tour is the other side of the coin Cline / Lage, first a tour with more Lage, then one with more band? They also had a few free or avant-garde jazz solos, even one from the drummer, all played with heart and soul and the whole man behind it, even with a certain sexiness. The enrapture during the solos has, like the solo itself, some elements of show, but the main energy was the mere happines to be able to make music, constantly, every day, with people who are better than you. Everyone is better between these, its like you always tell all of your children that you love them most. I can listen to those solos when I can see and feel that impulse, only live in concert, otherwise it is too closed up for my hearing, if you take recognizable harmonies or melodies as an opening.

The show was actually too short, 80-90 minutes, there was a very quiet encore, Cline said thank you, bowed, and „nice that you came“.

The club has room for maybe 200 people, the way to the bathroom leads right past the stage, and passing by I looked for and got some eye contact, I love that about small locations. The guys with the phones went to the stage as soon as the musicians left, to take pictures of amplifiers and pedals. At the end of the evening, the room was almost empty, Cline and Lage were clearing away  their cable stuff, and I took my chance to ask them to sign my CD. Few people do that, is signing only common with books? I’ll have everything signed that’s not on the tree at three, it changes my sentiment and closeness to art and artists, and you get a smile. It works like an additional anchor.

I had spent my last cash for the CD, and did not wait to see if the musicians show up again. I don’t have music related questions, and the other ones are hard to answer anyway. Where does the magic come from, whether they had to sacrifice something, if everything in them is music, and how to find the end of a piece, more with the heart or the head? This is of course nonsense, because in this class of brilliance your talent is just one part, with intelligence, perception, the openness of the soul. Who wants to unravel all that?

Please come back soon.