Listening to Canadian pianist Bryn Roberts and Norwegian guitarist Lage Lund, you can hear the musical rapport they've built up from playing together for more than a dozen years.

Lage Lund and Bryn Roberts (photo by James Bizon)
Lage Lund and Bryn Roberts (photo by James Bizon)

They have just released their second duo album together, and will showcase it to audiences in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa this week, including Saturday at GigSpace.

Hide the Moon and the Stars is a collection of their own compositions, plus one jazz standard. It was recorded in the same way that they perform, with just the sound of Roberts on grand piano and Lund on archtop guitar.

There's a richness and melodic beauty to the tunes on the album – but also unexpected textures and intriguing contrasts, in a collection with depth and substance. The music is evocative yet simple, with no unnecessary notes.

Originally from Winnipeg and with seven years of steadily increasing visibility in Montreal's jazz scene, Roberts released his debut album in 2000 to considerable acclaim and a Montreal Jazz Festival appearance. He moved to New York City in 2001 and has released two further quartet albums since, plus two duo albums with Lund. He’s recorded with Seamus Blake, Matt Penman, Jochen Rueckert, and Drew Gress, and often plays with legendary bassist Chuck Israels. He also regularly accompanies renowned singer-songwriters such as Shawn Colvin and Rosanne Cash.

Lage (pronounced Lah-gay) Lund became well-known after his win at the 2005 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Guitar Competition. Praised publicly by Pat Metheny and Kurt Rosenwinkel, he's several times won the Rising Star guitar category of the DownBeat Critics Poll. He’s released four albums, the latest being the trio CD Idlewild.

Roberts spoke to editor Alayne McGregor last week about the album and about his musical partnership with Lund. This is an edited and condensed version of our interview. What appeals to you about the piano-guitar duo format?

Roberts: I've always been a big fan of the piano and the guitar together, even though it can be counter-intuitive because they're both chord instruments. There's the potential for harmonic clashes and things like that. But I've always just loved the colour of it, and in particular I was influenced a lot by the Bill Evans and Jim Hall recordings, which were to me some of the best music ever made.

And, in this case, I was less concerned with the instrumentation, I guess, than just getting to play with Lage in a more intimate setting.

He and I have been playing together for years, in Brooklyn in various jam sessions and all sorts of bands, with drums and bass. I had always enjoyed the way we played – just the two of us together. So this isn't a format that I would necessarily explore with another guitarist besides Lage. This is a special set of circumstances, just with the way we play together.

I would say, more than anything, that's what drew me to trying out this format.

Plus, I had made other records before that were quartet and quintet records, with saxophone, and I wanted to do something really different. Does it make it easier in some ways to have only one other person to really concentrate on and listen deeply to?

Roberts: For sure. That's a big part of it. You can really develop a musical rapport that way. Obviously the energy and excitement of listening to bass and drums or a horn player is its own thing, but yes, that's totally true – you can really just focus on the other person. Since you've studied with Fred Hersch, I was wondering if his duo with guitarist Julian Lage had any effect?

Roberts: I've definitely heard them perform together. And then Fred also had a duo record earlier on the Nonesuch label with Bill Frisell that I really liked called Songs We Know. That was a very nice record, just the two of them together.

Yes, Fred and Julian, it's kind of different than what I and Lage do, but obviously those are some of my … just the greatest players. I've seen them together a lot in New York, at the Jazz Standard, and I've always been very impressed by their thing.

I wouldn't say that I've been influenced by that ensemble quite so much. I have a more over-arching influence coming from Fred's whole pianistic approach and his aesthetic, rather than particular ensemble, I've always been a huge fan of Fred's playing. As you mentioned, I did have the opportunity to study with him some years ago. We're still very friendly and I see him around quite a bit. I always enjoy hearing him play. He's been really kind and supportive about my playing over the years, too, which is a nice vote of confidence from one of my heroes! When did you meet Lage?

Roberts: In the early 00's in Brooklyn. I moved to New York in 2001, and I think he got there a couple years later. I'd been hearing about this guitar player, and I had this jam session in Brooklyn at a now-gone bar (it doesn't exist any more in that form) called Freddy's. That was with Will Vinson, who's a great alto saxophone player, and Orlando le Fleming, who's a fantastic bassist. Both of them have gone onto their own kinds of great careers. It was us and Lage in the house band, and then many people would come through. It was a great jam session then; I got to meet a lot of players that way.

But that's when Lage and I first started getting together, back then. What was your first impression of him? What drew your attention to him?

Roberts: Just a really beautiful sound on the guitar. The stuff that he was playing was just so interesting harmonically to me. I could hear, to some degree, what the influences were, but also there was so much – and I feel like there is still so much in his playing, it's got even more developed – that's just really uniquely him. Especially from a harmonic standpoint: his attention to voice leading, and chords and things like that, and the way that he comps for people – it's just so interesting, and really one of a kind, I think.

Certainly I was drawn to that really individual voice that he had – plus we just really got along as friends! He's kind of an odd guy, he's a man-of-few-words type of guy, and has a quirky sense of humour. We just get along. It's easier to develop these musical relationships with someone with whom you already get along on a personal level. That's not always the case – oftentimes we're thrust into musical situations with people that we barely know. I wouldn't say that there's a lot of musicians with whom I don't get along, but obviously it's easier with some than others. Did you find you had some commonalities because you're both ex-pats in the United States?

Roberts: I think, for a minute, that everybody in New York feels like a fish out of water in a way. But I guess there was something to that, too, because the two other musicians at that jam session, Will and Orlando, were both British, so I guess none of us being actual Americans but also living full-time in the U.S., we definitely shared that experience. So maybe there was something to that, too.

Also, it's a struggle to gain one's footing first of all in New York as a musician, and then secondly just as someone trying to live in the U.S. There's all these hoops to jump through with immigration, and expense, and lawyers to deal with, and permits to apply for. We had bonded to some degree over some of the work that we've had to get through just to stay there.

I should clarify: I no longer live in New York City. I moved to Portland, Oregon, because I met my wife, who is from here. Now I'm still back and forth to New York a lot, but I no longer live full-time in New York.

I've been in Portland for a couple years now, and still my work brings me to New York, I would say, once every month or six weeks. I'm going back there a couple times next month for various different things. I really am trying to keep many irons in the fire there, too, because my whole musical community and how I came up as a musician after leaving Canada, was all in New York.

I was there for 15 years. That's where I cut my teeth and where I forged these very meaningful musical relationships that I still get to use, and I still get to play with so many of these great players. I feel very lucky for that.

photo provided by Bryn Roberts
Hide the Moon and the Stars CD cover Is Lage still in New York?

Roberts: Lage's still in New York, yes. Because you both have these busy schedules, how often do you get to play together?

Roberts: Not that often. We just finished up a little run on the west coast – we played in Los Angeles, and in Portland, and then we did a concert for Cory Weeds up in Vancouver, which was a lot of fun.

With his schedule and my schedule, it can be difficult for things to line up. It just requires a lot of planning, a long time in advance. And we don't really rehearse or anything. This year, we made the record, so we had a couple gigs in April, and then we had the recording session, so we played three or four times then. And then we just finished playing another three or four times. Probably between 15 and 20 times a year we get to play. Not that many, but it's still …

There's such a shared understanding of what the thing is about that it doesn't really require a bunch of preparation. We certainly don't really talk about how we're going to approach things very much. We just play. And if either of us has new material for the ensemble, we just bring it in and try it, and some of it sticks and some of it doesn't.

If it were up to me, we would be playing a lot more together, performing all over the place, but we don't always get that opportunity.

We did a whole tour in Japan [in the summer of 2017]. Being able to play seven or eight concerts in a row – I wish we could do that all the time.

Plus, that was such a great experience! I had played there before with trios and things like that but to be on tour in Japan – first of all, the Japanese are super-hip. They know so much about jazz music, And they're such a wonderful, respectful audience and so enthusiastic. It's like you couldn't really ask for a better audience to play for – except maybe the audience at GigSpace, let's hope. [he laughs] Well GigSpace is a good listening hall...

Roberts: I think it will be great. The last time I came through Ottawa I played with Lage but it was at the recital hall of a piano store, Ottawa Pianos, because GigSpace didn't have that particular date available. So I was really excited when I reached out to them and they had something.

Again, these are dates that I had reached out about in the summer, maybe May or something. It requires so much planning, and already I'm making plans for the ensemble for next year – for Europe and hopefully for Japan again. If you don't do a lot of rehearsals, how do you pre-plan to ensure you're not stepping on each other with the two instruments?

Roberts: That's something that we've just come to naturally, I think, just from careful listening to one another. I also feel like it does happen from time to time. It's not like we never step on each others' toes! But I feel like we're both heading in the same general direction and we understand some of the harmonic conventions or rhythmic conventions that the other one might do.

That's the other advantage to playing with someone for years – much like you might know what I might be saying next if we were having a conversation, if you knew me really well. It's the same thing. There's an element of being able to – I wouldn't want to say like predict what he's going to do or what I'm going to do – but there's an understanding that we're both heading in the same general direction. And when those momentary clashes do happen, honestly it's not something that super-bothers me or him.

Especially at this point, I feel like there's always a musical solution to that. It can create some kind of tension, which can be interesting, on some level too. How much improvisation are you doing in the compositions? They're not all through-composed, right?

Roberts: No, definitely not. In this new record, there's some more composed things where there's less improvising. There's a couple where there really isn't any. But most of the songs are actually quite simple, and then we just use that framework for improvisation. Can you play this music on keyboards or is it really dependent on playing on a proper piano?

Roberts: I strive to keep this duo to as acoustic a thing as I can. I love playing keyboards, and I play keyboards and organ and Wurlitzer with all sorts of other artists. I love doing that. But this duo, I have always striven to keep it to a piano. I have had some offers of trying to do it somewhere where there was no piano and I could bring something, but for me, I feel most comfortable, especially in something so exposed, if I can play an instrument which I've spent most of my time mastering (or attempting to master, I should say). So, yes, I try to keep this to a pretty specific set of circumstances if I can. You said in your press release that you recorded this album in one single room without headphones.

Roberts: Yes, that's how we did the last record, too. That was great. That was something that important to me, too, to find a place [where] we had very little isolation between the guitar and the piano. There wasn't really an opportunity to do any punches or editing in of parts that we missed, so what you're listening to is more or less complete takes. Just sonically, from my perspective, it's so much easier to record without headphones. It's a luxury you don't often have, especially if there are drummers or bassists or horn players – there's just no opportunity to really do that without headphones, or it would be way more difficult sonically to manage that. So I was glad to have that recorded in this format, for sure. Would that emphasize, or enhance, the duo experience?

Roberts: Definitely. Because then you're just listening to that one person and it's not filtered through a set of headphones, where you sometimes can't really hear too well through. The acoustic sound of the grand piano and the sound coming from Lage's guitar and his amplifier – it makes it simple. How many pieces did you write for the album and how many did Lage write?

Roberts: It's about 50-50. On the record there are two solo piano pieces and those are obviously both written by me. So I think Lage has four, and I have five.

On the last record, we had only one of Lage's tunes. It was mostly mine, and we did a few more songs by other composers.

But this one, Hide the Moon and the Stars, is more focused on the writing, and that's something that's been interesting, too, because we both wrote pieces specifically tailored for this, for the duo. Some of them just didn't feel right to do with bass and drums. They were just more specific to these particular musicians. In listening to one of your YouTube videos for this album, I felt a vibe very reminiscent of classic jazz standards, even though it was an original piece.

Roberts: The one you're probably talking about is the one I wrote, called “Amaryllis”. That's a waltz that uses more standard-type chord changes, almost like some from the American Songbook, in a way. The other one, the title track from the record, is one that Lage wrote, called “Hide the Moon and the Stars”, and that has much less conventional harmony.

But the one that I wrote, that there's a video of, definitely borrows heavily from that kind of harmony. Those songs are really how I learned to play, songs from the Great American Songbook. It's still an obsession of mine, learning those songs and those types of chord changes. Certainly that bleeds into my own compositional style, I would say. Over what period of time did you write this music?

Roberts: It takes me a really long time to write stuff, so I don't really know. Some of the stuff was written at the very last minute. The one that I wrote called “Alternative Facts”, I think I finished the day before the recording session.

A lot of this stuff, I never really know if it's done or not. [he laughs] Like some of it feels done, but a lot of time I'll write something and then record it and then play it more and eventually it gets tweaked over time. While there are some elements that just stay the way they are, a lot of the compositions have room to be altered or inverted or changed a little bit. And I don't mind that – I like having that flexibility.

So it took me a long time to write some of the stuff and then other things were like, “Omigod we have a recording session and I have to finish this.” (laughing)

Lage brought in a bunch of brand-new stuff. He's a really quick writer, and he's prolific. I always wonder how he can do it, because we have different styles. He's able to just knock out tunes that I find really interesting in a very short amount of time. For me, I suffer over it a little bit more. Maybe I over-think.

It's not something that I mind, because usually I think that my tunes, the way they come out, are OK. I'm glad to have spent the time on them. “Alternative Facts”: why did you pick that title for that piece?

Roberts: Because of living in the U.S. and going through this presidency. Calling it “Alternative Facts” was by no means any kind of political statement. When I first heard that phrase uttered, I was just so amazed and bewildered, so that struck a chord for me and I borrowed the title. I wanted to make the composition something that sounded a little bit unusual and hopefully a little bit unsettling.

That was the one that I finished moments before. That's one that's mostly through-composed, but it has an improvised section in the middle. And that's where Lage [does] almost a sound-effect kind of thing that I sent him. I play a vamp and then he uses some very interesting sounds and things that he developed from pedals and tweaking the vamp and stuff like that. So it's much more textural than it is linear as an improvisation. And I also wanted to have something quite different on the record, so it's got that different section in the middle which I like.

Hopefully the point comes across of it being kind of weird and unsettling! That was the idea – but by no means any kind of big political statement.

I think sometimes people who write instrumental music hang these lofty titles on something, maybe trying to get a point across. I'm not sure how successful it is, so I didn't want to be pretentious about it. I was just so horrified by that phrase that I wanted to make something that sounded a little bit weird. “Hide the Moon and the Stars”, the album title track. What was the inspiration for that title? What does it refer to?

Roberts: It's a title that Lage borrowed from the opera Salome by Richard Strauss. There's a section [in it] where they say, “Hide the moon, hide the stars”. I loved the title – I thought it was so evocative and the piece that he wrote with it I felt was great. So I asked him if I could use the title for the album itself, and he agreed.

[In the press release for the album, Lund is quoted as saying that the composition “refers to something so terrible happening that you want to hide it from the universe … I wrote it right after the last election.”] What reaction did you get to this music on your West Coast tour?

Roberts: People liked it, I think for the most part. It can be a difficult thing to get people to pay attention to any kind of record these days, any kind of recording or album. I noticed the videos that I've put up have a lot of views, and that's heartening. I haven't seen really what people are saying about the record too too much yet, but colleagues I've played it for have seemed to like it, so that's always heartening. It's always nice when other musicians like what you're working on, but of course one doesn't want to just focus on these other musicians because that can be a bit of a dead end.

In our live shows, I also try to mix in some material that might be more familiar to maybe the more casual jazz listener: some standards and things like that from that world. So the reaction's been mainly positive. It's only been out for under a month, so hopefully more people will listen to it. What can the GigSpace audience then expect to hear?

Roberts: We'll play a lot of stuff off the record, a lot of stuff off the previous record which is called Nightsong. And there might even be some new stuff. So we'll see. I've honestly not thought that far ahead about it. I still have to think about booking hotel rooms and stuff like that. Oftentimes what we're going to play on that particular gig can be a very last-minute decision. In fact I would say more often than not that's the case.

Of course I want to play a bunch of stuff from the new record because that's the most pertinent at the moment, but there's also a wealth of other stuff in our repertoire that I'm really glad to draw from. And a lot of times I'll make a set list or talk about the first few tunes and then just abandon it in the middle of the set because something else will feel right. That's another one of those cool things with Lage where a lot of times we don't even have to talk. I'll set up a song and he'll know what song I'm going to play. Or vice-versa. So that can be cool.

And I like to throw some surprises into the set. Not necessarily surprises at him, but I like there to be a little bit of room for improvisation within the set as well. It's not just like, “We do these eight tunes and then we take a break, and then come back and do six more.” The set itself is something that can be a living thing – and that's one of the great things about live music, especially live music that is improvised. A lot of times you have to go with the flow and see what feels right. What are you planning for the next year?

Roberts: I'm also very involved in the singer-songwriter world and I play with a lot of different artists in that capacity, so I'll have to see what the next year brings with that, because that is what enables me to pay for the other more labour-of-love projects that I do.

I might take a little break from [recording with Lage]. I think my next recording might be something quite different, maybe a trio thing. I also have an album with a bunch of vocalists that's half in the can. So I might work on trying to finish that one up as well.

But I'm always trying to look forward to the next thing and try to challenge myself by writing more or arranging more. Thinking what the next project will be – I'm not exactly sure what form it will take yet. I just have to get through the next couple weeks and I can catch my breath!

Bryn Roberts and Lage Lund will perform at GigSpace on Saturday, December 8, at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25, available on-line on the GigSpace website, by credit card by calling 613-729-0693, or at the door for cash (but be warned that GigSpace only has 46 seats and does sell out).

Get there! GigSpace is located within in Alcorn Music Studios at 953 Gladstone Avenue, one long block west of Preston Avenue. OC Transpo route 14 stops on Gladstone at Loretta near GigSpace; route 85 runs down Preston Avenue nearby. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!

The duo's December CD release tour:

Read's previous interview with Roberts: Bryn Roberts returns to making his own, lyrical music [2013]