American guitarist Julian Lage in Jules at Eight, describes the human tendency to lack perspective while being the centre of attention. He comes from an artistic household in an era where there was less pressure compared to the present times. He describes music as nurturing, healing, and a spiritual wonder of the world. Julian signed with the prestigious Blue Note Records, led by Don Was. Having studied sitar and tabla at the Ali Akbar School of Music, Julian finally got a chance to channel all of his sensibilities in his collaboration with Ustad Zakir Hussain and Charles Lloyd. Here’s an exclusive interview with the music maestro.
You were considered a prodigy, and you were the primary subject for the documentary called “Jules at Eight” back when you were a little boy. How did you make sure that you always stayed motivated and kept learning and exploring in spite of the pressures that were added on in terms of living up to expectations?
I think it’s human nature that when we are the centre of attention, like I was, it’s very hard to have perspective. I don’t even think I interpreted many things as being under pressure. I remember, as a young person, just feeling like I loved music, I loved getting better, and I wanted to get better.
And I was so lucky that I was supported by family, teachers, and friends who were all very nurturing, you know? And that’s what I remember. External pressures, in my opinion, sometimes feel greater to other people than to the person in the middle. Looking back, I think maybe I feel more aware of how much that was for a young person. But as a young person, I just thought, “This is great.” And I also had a lot of attention. It was before social media, before a certain sense of being everywhere. So I think I benefited from being young in an era where the pressure wasn’t as high as today.
How much has parental and mentor nurturing impacted you, and how much of it evolved out of your own maturity in understanding these things?
I do think there’s something sympathetic between those around you and your own impulse to grow and get better. And also, I think it bears saying that music is wonderful. Music is nurturing; music is healing. Music is a spiritual kind of world wonder. That’s how I feel. So, regardless of my progress or my regrets, I believe that simply being a human near music—listening to it, playing it—is very grounding and educational. As a result, I couldn’t tell you where I ended and the music started, or where the people around me started. It’s a collective effort, isn’t it?
What were some of the insights you gained during your exploration outside the realm of music that further helped inspire and contributed to your aesthetics?
I’m not sure that I could speak much about anything outside of the music. Again, I grew up in a very artistic household, and aesthetics are of interest, whether it be visual art, interior design, literature, or what have you. So you could say that those elements informed and helped in emphasizing the importance of personal growth. Whatever that means, like exercise, self-love, compassion, and empathy, all those things are vital. So you could say that those inform the music, even esthetically. But really, I’m such a nerd for music, and that’s whatever the genre is. And so I think my approach to aesthetic considerations is to play something that feels authentic or write music that feels and sounds kind of like me. One of the ways to do that is to write all the stuff that really doesn’t sound like me. Any writer’s, any discipline’s, considerations are always at work. So I think aesthetics are just the result of it.
You are contemplative when you play an instrument. One might even say that you’re dancing with the instrument. You’ve explored the Alexander technique, body mapping, Feldenkrais, etc. How have they helped you in terms of your practice and performance?
I think the word “dance” is absolutely appropriate. I think as a guitar player, like my friend Gerald Harshaw says, you move for a living. It’s about movement. And your movements tend to intersect with the guitar, causing a sound to happen. But it is about the clarity of movement. I just happen to have an interest in bringing that to a conscious level. And not everyone wants to or needs to. You know, some people just pick up an instrument. In my case, I’ve been curious about anatomy and things like the Alexander technique, Feldenkrais, or body mapping. They’re basically methods of understanding the language of movement. Not to say there’s one correct way to move, but just to say that you’re allowed to talk about movement. And there are ways that have been very advantageous and beneficial for me when it comes to trying to dissect problems that I’m experiencing with the instrument; for example, maybe I get especially tense when I play at a certain tempo. And then I think to myself, “What are my tools to kind of investigate?” That is frequently the case when I examine the relationship of the entire body rather than just what touches the guitar. So it’s the movement of the head, the neck, the spine, everything, and also in relation to gravity. And like I said, it’s not for everybody. I just happen to really love it.
You’ve studied with Sophia Rosoff, Gary Burton, and Bob Moses. How has that helped you think about the guitar, and what are some of the qualities of a good teacher that you personally embody at this point?
I think it’s listening. I think there was a high degree of presence with the student and all of those people you mentioned being there. You feel seen, like you’re not fighting for their attention, and you feel like they are curious, that they’re warm, and that they’re also willing to give you advice. It takes courage to do it in a way that still incorporates the needs of the student. I remember Sophia Rosoff, who was a great piano teacher. We spoke about my injury and how to play with more fluidity. And I remember playing for her and feeling like, “Wow, no one’s ever listened to me so closely.” Like, I don’t need to listen to myself as closely as she did then. And then she gave me advice, wherein she asked me to consider these techniques to work with. And I thought that was really quite powerful, and it’s also because of her courage and the fact that she was a great teacher. I feel as though, as students, it invites them to be more vulnerable and to take a risk. I think it’s been a very effective lesson. So I think about those qualities a lot, both as a student and as a teacher.
Do you feel that the whole process of transmission—knowledge from a master to a student—is being lost somewhere in the modern era of teaching music?
We interact with one another so much online, with video lessons, video calls, and everything else. I don’t think it’s being lost. But I think it’s making me reconsider what a transmission is. I probably think of transmission in the more traditional sense of passing from one to another. However, in teaching more and more, I realised that a large part of that transmission is about what the student brings to the lesson. In other words, if you’re going to teach online and a student signs up for a lesson and they show up and they go on the screen, they play their guitar for you. Before I said anything or taught anything, the student had to reach a point of vulnerability and awakening in order to show up and put themselves out there. That’s the courage I’m talking about. So transmission involves what we project, and therefore I’m not too concerned about it being challenged in the digital age. I think we might experience it differently.
You have also studied Indian classical music at the Ali Akbar School of Music. Indian classical music traditions are substantially notarized, so the mood is sort of verbally described, and I’d like to know from you how this mood gets verbally transmitted in its purity from generation to generation, from student to teacher. What was your approach to learning this particular musical form compared to your approach to learning jazz music in general?
I would have been 13 or 14 at that time, and words don’t describe how meaningful that experience was. But what the question underlined—a very big part of it—was the sense that there is tremendous wisdom and intelligence that can be passed from human to human through music, and it’s not limited in any way or form. It was so clear that the road was infinite. It wasn’t something I’d learn and then say, “OK, I’ll get it for you later,” you know? I’ll never understand it completely in my lifetime. So, in terms of the music on which I’ve focused the most, jazz and improvised music, I’d say the similarities are really centered on the relationships. One of the reasons I loved being at the Ali Akbar School of Music was the people I met and what they would teach me—the teachers I had. So looking back, there was human interaction, and there was an understanding that this music is bigger than us. And it’s not just about memorization. But I think about those days of studying. It was tremendous.
Could you speak about your album, “View with a Room,” which was groundbreaking, and what was it like working with the legendary Bill Frisell?
Bill is one of the most genuine and authentic creative forces in the world, and we’re lucky to have worked together quite a bit. We’ve made, I think, five or six records together with John Zorn and Gyan Riley also working together, Charles Lloyd’s Band, and we’ve done our own duo tours as well. Margaret Glaspy, my wife, is also the producer of the group, We share an ecosystem, and for Bill Frisell to be incorporated into this record was quite natural because the starting point is the trio with Dave King and Jorge Roeder, which is the band that I have been lucky enough to play with for quite some time. Bill was able to enter a small band and expand it while keeping what was good about it. It was a stunning masterclass on how to change the music while still retaining what I felt was sincere and good about it.
You embody so many facets of creative expression. What is this creative impulse for you? Is it the use of the word “conversation” or “catharsis,” or is it the need to understand and give it a certain form, sequence, and structure? What is this impulse for you?
I wouldn’t say that I have the impulse to make sense of anything. I have no idea what’s going on in any respect. I do think there’s a sense of celebration, though.
Perhaps that’s how I experienced music growing up. I feel that way about the blues and music from African-American traditions. It seems as though if I write music for a band, it elicits opportunities for us to try to get closer to a sacred space. Reinforce those spaces so that you can just, you know, go there and access it as much as possible.
In this entire process of making music and experiencing catharsis, what is it that keeps the musician in you going? And is that a destination, or is it just the journey?
I’d be lying if I said it’s just one thing or another that keeps it going. I believe the universe has intelligence that animates you. It’s far deeper than I can fathom. As far as the impulse to keep going, I think a simpler answer is curiosity and love. I love music, and I love art. I feel like a better person or a happier person because of it. I think catharsis is a brilliant word for it because there’s a sense of release, and when there’s release, that makes room for something to come in. And I love that there’s a mystery to it.
– Aaditya Veera is a Music Talkshow host and a Podcaster.