BEFORE HIS DEATH in 2013, jazz guitarist Jim Hall used to hold court at monthly luncheons at French Roast, a bistro in Greenwich Village. He would invite friends and other musicians, and tell stories from his nearly 60 years as both a bandleader and as a sideman for icons like Jimmy Giuffre and Paul Desmond. At one such get-together, Julian Lage met Nels Cline.
"It was very kismet," Lage says of the two guitarists' first meeting. "We both just happened to show up one day and hit it off immediately. Nels lives close by the restaurant and we ended up at his house hanging out. We'd play and talk and try different guitars and just listen and engage."
This fast friendship only deepened as they got to know each other as people and players. When their busy schedules allowed—Lage leads his own trio and is a member of vibraphonist Gary Burton's current quartet; among many other projects, Cline is best known as a member of Wilco—they'd meet up for jam sessions and play the occasional show together in New York. Taking the next natural step, the two booked a recording session that yielded Room, a remarkable collection of instrumental duets and one of the best jazz albums of 2014.
Captured on tape one spring afternoon early last year at Sear Sound, Room exhibits a chemistry that goes beyond usual jazz collaborations. Both Lage and Cline challenge one another to go further and also rein in their sometimes flashy tendencies. The solos are minimalist and subdued, with each player opting for little splashes of color to augment the melodic base being built in tandem.
The album also offers a somewhat rare chance to hear Lage push himself into more serrated, atonal phrasing on tracks like "The Scent of Light." Also out of character, Cline plays it relatively straight without the aid of a passel of guitar pedals.
"It's easy to see Nels in a certain light, as a master of effects and sonic landscapes," Lage says. "He's a genius with that. But our first real connection was just sitting down and playing acoustic guitar together. We recognized something in each other instantly."