Bill Frisell and Julian Lage: Whatever this is…

“What a joy to…”

Bill Frisell paused briefly as he sought the right words for his feelings about the electric guitar duos he’d been playing with Julian Lage at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thursday. He gave up quickly.

“Whatever this is,” he concluded with a sheepish shrug.

Frankly, he couldn’t have said it better. 

Watching these two masters play together, it was as impossible to fully comprehend what they were doing, as much as it was impossible to comprehend that what they were doing was on just 12 strings, played by just four hands, the harmonic complexities of the combination often defying musical physics. At times it seemed even they were as mystified not just by what it was, but how it even could be. You could see it in their faces, especially on the face of Frisell, 68, whose sweetness and kindness matches his huge talents, marveling at what Lage, a veteran at just 31, was wringing from the neck of his Telecaster. Sometimes Frisell sat out and just watched his young partner, beaming with a broad grin.

For us in the audience it was a grin-fest as well. The adventurous virtuosity (a word that seems inadequate for this meshing of their artistry) was spiked at all times by both parties’ playfulness. Lage in particular would head off into dazzling displays that brought both squeals of astonishment and peals of delighted laughter, Frisell parrying with his own spritely, if more genteel, sparkle. 

This was there no matter what they were playing, be it some 12-bar blues or idiosyncratic Monk (is there any other kind?). Threading it all together were various standards, including “All the Things You Are,” in homage to Jim Hall, whose spirit both of them hold, and an idyllic stroll through “Shenandoah,” something of a Frisell signature, here given a fresh skip from Lage’s shining sense of wonder.

Strolling, for that matter, makes a good descriptive for their approach to it all. They went on strolls together.

“We’re going to find our way to another song,” Lage said, introducing “Shenandoah.” (And now you’ve read nearly everything that they spoke in the course of the show). 

Usually one of them would begin solo, sometimes after a chuckle-bringing Alphonse and Gaston moment  (“You start.” “No, you start.” “No, please, YOU start.”). Improvising, they would move from dissonant (though never discordant) to melodic (though never mawkish) without a seeming care, as if those are just different aspects of the same thing. And in their loving care they are. 

There was one frustration, though visual, not musical, as it was impossible (there’s that word again) to watch both players at once. Any time you’d look at one of their hands, the other was certain to do something incredible. So then you’d switch to him, and the other would do something unbelievable. For the whole show. Oh well, such is the price.

And you gotta love a duo that with the encore, after a transfixing 90 minutes of probing, prodding and teasing into new musical spaces of expression, sends the audience out humming the Snow White classic “Someday My Prince Will Come.” 

A joy to whatever this is, indeed.

For a sense of what this is, here’s a video of a complete 2018 show by the pair: