Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The electric Julian Lage

Photo by Nathan West

Julian Lage is one of the great guitar players of his generation. A child prodigy, as documented in Jules at Eight, he stopped being a promise a long time ago. Today, he regularly partakes in a wide variety of projects, but his own trio—with double bass and drums—is the unit where he shines the brightest.

When he last played London, in July 2018, at one point he asked what day it was, not so much because he'd lost track of the calendar—although that's the life of the touring musician—but in appreciation for the audience who'd packed Camden Town's Jazz Café on a Tuesday to hear, as he said, jazz.

Not that I care much about labels but, in Lage and his trio's case, "jazz" may be a bit of a misnomer. They do play instrumental music all right, and they have the chops expected from top-class musicians today, but there's more than jazz to it. In his three records with the unit, Arclight (2016), Modern Lore (2018), and the new Love Hurts (2019), the sound of, mostly, a Telecaster (or a Nachocaster) with the classic bass and drums, reminds me of Western Swing guitar players from, or based in, California (Lage himself is a West-coaster), like Jimmy Bryant or especially Roy Lanham, players who would skip over music genres with astounding virtuosity. Like them, Lage is an explorer of his instrument, but this is the early 21st century, and his scope is as wide as it gets in terms of styles and heritages he draws from.

To paraphrase Spiderman's uncle Ben, with great freedom comes great responsibility, and Lage's impossibly sweet demeanour in person belies the determination and decisiveness that guide his music. In this respect, Modern Lore is the most significant of his trio output, not incidentally their only album presenting Lage's originals exclusively. Here, as in the previous Arclight, Scott Colley is on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums, somehow combining the legacies of Jim Hall and Bill Frisell.

Lage's diatonic melodies, almost wordless songs, his deliberate rhythms—Wollesen's discipline and touch have a lot to do with this—, like the rocking backbeat of the evocative "General Thunder", the rolling 6/8 of "The Ramble" and "Roger the Dodger", or the trotting 2/4 of "Wordsmith", and the structure of his tunes all show an explicit clarity that is missing in a lot of contemporary music. Most of the record is song-like this way, but there's room for an ornettesque "Earth Science", still within the same sonic framework.

Yet another virtue of Lage in these records, is that he keeps his virtuosity as a flat-picker in check. As obvious as it may seem, this is no small feat for a young guitar player. There are bursts of it here and there—like the in bachian passage on "Roger..."—, but there are no wasted notes, no showing off: the tunes go always first, like in "Revelry" and "Whatever You Say, Henry", in the kind of contemplative, Great Plains mood which would easily fit in composer Maria Schneider's quieter work. 

The Telecaster was the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitar, and it has a beautiful natural sound, which Lage exploits wisely. Like a human voice, he lets it distort when it gets loud and, even though it is an electric instrument, expressive variety comes mostly from Lage's hands, their position on the guitar and the strength he applies to it.

Which leads to his astounding use of dynamics. Even in concert—with Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Doob on drums—he can go from the quietest moments to the grandest roar, as in the video below, which shows the ending of his 2018 gig in London.

In some many words, catch this trio if you can. They are currently on tour (dates).

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