Words by Brian Everett (brian@thesoundfloor.com)
Photography by Michael Schaffer (michael@schafferworks.com)

Last Wednesday, the resident jazz fans and guitar freaks of Austin were treated to two shows by the guitar duo of Nels Cline and Julian Lage at The University of Texas’ intimate Cactus Café. Ready to play their second set of the evening, the two virtuosos were welcomed to the stage by a capacity crowd as they calmly walked through the venue’s back exterior door. Supporting their 2014 release ROOM (Mack Avenue), Cline and Lage successfully took their patrons on a 90-minute exploration to the farthest boundaries of jazz.

For those unfamiliar, Nels Cline is a veteran abstract guitar genius, more popularly known as the lead guitar player for the alternative rock band Wilco, whom he’s been with since 2004. His mastery of the guitar goes well beyond just performance, and is further seen in his work as a writer and composer for the Nels Cline Singers, among other groups. Julian Lage is a 26-year-old Grammy-nominated guitar prodigy who was classically trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. His incredible technical ability has previously been showcased on stage with the likes of fellow guitarists such as Jim Hall, Doc Watson and John Abercrombie. 

Photos by Mike Schaffer. Contact: mike@schaffer.com

Photos by Mike Schaffer. Contact: mike@schaffer.com

After spending some time listening to ROOM, it was obvious the show wasn't going to be filled with traditional melodic jazz guitar a la Grant Green or Kenny Burrell. The album is a rather simple recording.  Lage in one channel and Cline in the other, it was recorded live and is void of any overdubs, demanding the listener’s full attention in order to be truly appreciated. The record leans heavily on tracks composed by Cline and really showcases the immense talents of both players, with most tracks featuring Cline’s signature angular attack partnered with edgy melodic guitar stylings from Lage. 

Performed live, the tunes from ROOM offered latitude for both Cline and Lage to improvise even further within the music’s unique and distinctive form. Throughout the night both Nels and Julian were fluid and connected on another level as they endeavored to explore the space. Together the two produced dynamic layers of music, soundscapes so abundant the audience may have struggled to appreciate the depth of what they were hearing.

There were several instances where Nels (equipped with his Gibson Barney Kessel hollow body) and Julian (picking a Manzer Blue Note) would cast a glance each other’s way to offer a subtle nod of approval during spontaneous moments of sheer improvisational brilliance. These sentiments swelled from the stage out onto the floor as the audience was silently solicited to connect with and participate in the jam occurring between these two incredible musicians.

Witnessing Cline and Lage perform in the spectacular ambiance of the Cactus Café along with such an attentive audience brought new perspective, new life to the tracks off ROOM. Live, the songs proved far more accessible to the listener, which makes further exploration of the recording even more enjoyable than it already was.  A fantastic and unexpected reward indeed.