Guitarist Julian Lage’s sparkling second trio recording with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King — titled “Squint” and out Friday — builds on their extraordinary rapport and shared musical references, aided by the input of both friends and famous orators.
Covers had dominated their first album together, 2019′s “Love Hurts,” adventurous explorations of songs ranging from pieces by shared influences from jazz (Ornette Colemen, Jimmy Giuffre, two by Keith Jarrett) to a pair of Roy Orbison hits (“Crying” and the title track).
After extensive touring together, they were ready to record an album focused on Lage’s own music when the pandemic struck.
By the time there were able to record “Squint” last August, Lage’s compositions had evolved in response to COVID and the unsettling politics of the time, particularly those arising from the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
A recording initially intended to emphasize positive, beautiful music took on added complexity, some of it stemming from a technique Lage, 33, began using as a compositional aid, in which he practiced along to words spoken by gifted communicators.
“It’s the combination of what someone’s expressing, the cadence of how they express it, the inflection of their voice, and the syncopation of their words, and all those things that make language beautiful,” he explains by phone from New York. “So I started thinking: Well, I want to emulate that as a guitar player.”
That didn’t just apply to people renowned for public speaking, notes Lage.
“I was teaching so much over this last year in different capacities,” he recalls, “that I noticed that my own cadence in the way I speak and the way I articulate things is perhaps freer than my articulation as a guitar player. And I didn’t want there to be such a great divide.
“So with those two notions in mind, I set about playing music with great orators speaking about topics of great importance. And what I found was that there’s this kind of alchemy of sorts, where I play differently. My cadence as a player changed next to Nikki Giovanni or James Baldwin or whoever it may be. My pacing changed, the buildup of tension and release changed. . . . My choice of harmonies might be a little less conclusive.”
Lage took his new music to Chicago, where Jeff Tweedy suggested tweaks — a chord alteration here, a change of time signature there. In Nashville, where the album was recorded, the trio was joined by a separate control-room trio: singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy, multi-instrumentalist/producer Armand Hirsch, and sound engineer Mark Goodell.
Lage credits Glaspy, his longtime artistic and life partner (and now wife: They married in December), with suggestions that lifted the music to a higher level.
“I love relinquishing control that way,” says Lage. “And I love it most with Margaret, because she knows how to produce. She’s done it with all her own music. She understands narrative. And she understands when things get tedious.”
The resultant music blends freewheeling improvisation, eclecticism, and concision. Some highlights: “Familiar Flower,” whose title references Charles Lloyd; and “Saint Rose,” for Lage’s Santa Rosa, Calif., hometown, which was ravaged by wildfires in 2017 and 2020.
“Twilight Surfer” is propelled by an infectious rockabilly vibe. “Boo’s Blues” and “Squint” are swingers inspired by jazz heroes Wilbur Ware, Art Taylor, and Billy Higgins.
Covers include Lage’s own “Day and Age,” first recorded on his 2015 solo guitar album “World’s Fair,” Johnny Mercer’s “Emily,” and the western love song “Call of the Canyon,” a hit for Gene Autry in 1942.
That the trio handles all of it with such aplomb has much to do with how long they’ve known each other and how in sync their approach to music is.
Roeder, 41, met Lage while still a student at New England Conservatory. Lage, then a teenager, was teaching at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, where Roeder found himself in a jam session with Lage, fellow NEC student Ben Roseth, and veteran guitarist Peter Bernstein. Roeder decided to test Lage by abruptly altering the time signature in a standard to one from his native Peru.
“I don’t know why I did it,” recalls Roeder. “I don’t feel like a person who would throw challenges to people. But I decided to throw it into an Afro-Peruvian rhythm. I felt like, ‘Oh, let’s see what Julian does on this.’ And I was floored. He understood it so well, it just seemed like second nature to him. So from that experience I just thought, ‘OK, this guy is truly amazing. All the hype is accurate.’”
King met Lage as the Bad Plus was performing at a jazz festival in Australia, when Lage introduced himself in a hotel lobby as King was about to join bandmates Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson in a van headed to the festival site. Their first chance to play together came a few years later, when Lage had King and Roeder join him during a residency at The Stone, John Zorn’s workshop venue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The three bonded immediately as a unit.
“I have a lot of reference points that I share with Julian, even though we are of very different generations” says King, 51. “The way that Julian plays contains a lot of this outside-of-jazz DNA. Julian can also be like a Nashville ’60s studio musician. If you play in his group you have to have a large toolbox. He can play free music, rubato music, he can play uptempo jazz, he can play shuffles, straight, rock-style tunes, odd meters, whatever. In the Bad Plus we use a very large toolbox, different feels and different structures. So for me it was a very natural fit.”
A big toolbox, indeed. And starting this fall Lage will be lugging his to Boston several times a year as a newly named member of the New England Conservatory faculty.
“I’m excited for that,” says Lage, who already knows the city well from having studied and taught at the Berklee College of Music. He’s still determining how his NEC teaching duties will play out come autumn. “I think I have students,” he says. “It’s just private lessons at the moment.”