Julian Lage: Ahead of the Curve

Julian Lage drops a lot of names. There was the time, for example, when Carlos Santana invited his fellow guitarist onstage, and the recording session with David Grisman, and the run as a core member of Gary Burton’s band. Impressive credentials for any musician, but the hook is that Lage notched off these accomplishments at ages 8, 11 and 16, respectively. At 8—three years after he first picked up a guitar—Lage was the subject of a documentary film (appropriately titled Jules at Eight), in which the already gifted young axman nonchalantly cited Coltrane and Wes Montgomery as his preferred listening. At 12 he appeared both on the annual Grammy telecast and at the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

So the word “prodigy” invariably comes up quickly in any conversation with Lage, and it’s a tag he neither shrugs off nor exploits—there’s no sense of bigheadedness as he unfurls his remarkable tale; it’s just an unavoidable chapter in his bio, and he’s cool with it. But right now all that backstory just serves as a lead-in to discussing Sounding Point (Emarcy), Lage’s stunning debut album. “It’s been a long time coming,” he says, fully aware of what that sounds like from a 21-year-old. “It’s cool being a sideman but you’re really judged on your own merits.”

Lage uses the occasion of his first set as a leader to display not only his considerable acoustic guitar technique, but also his diversity and range. In 13 (mostly) original compositions, he slips comfortably from sweet and reflective to on-the-edge audacious. Two tracks are solo improvisations Lage recorded on the session’s final day. Three are trio pieces featuring the ubiquitous banjoist Béla Fleck and mandolin dynamo Chris Thile, a fellow prodigy best known as part of progressive bluegrassers Nickel Creek. Two tracks, including a cover of Miles’ “All Blues,” are duets with pianist Taylor Eigsti, who also began performing professionally in childhood. The rest utilize all or part of a quintet that also includes saxophonist Ben Roseth, celloist Aristides Rivas, bassist Jorge Roeder and percussionist Tupac Mantilla.

“I had offers to make a record before, but I was waiting for a time when everything coalesced,” says Lage. “Musically I wanted to have the compositions. I was set on having a band that could tour. And I didn’t want to make a record when I was living at home, in California, in school. Because it’s not just the record, it’s the life that goes with it. Also, I wanted to be really clear. I know I could have done a straightahead jazz record, or several things, but I felt that I had something else brewing inside me. I couldn’t expect other people to jump onboard until I was clear. About two years ago I decided I was ready.”

Lage began work on Sounding Point after moving from northern California, where he grew up, to Boston. He went there to attend the Berklee College of Music, only to quickly discover that there weren’t enough hours in the day to be a full-time student and a working musician. Fortunately, the school was able to offer Lage a special program that allowed him to take only the courses he wanted while leaving him enough space to craft his songwriting and his album. With Steven Epstein producing and Richard King engineering, Sounding Point came together while Lage worked toward his degree. The decision to showcase the various aspects of Lage’s musical personality was deliberate. Building the group tracks around a cello-saxophone mix, he says, “was tricky because I didn’t want to put in a cello for cello’s sake. I wanted saxophone and cello to create a hybrid harmonic. That adds a dynamic that I can’t do on the guitar at all. It was a process of discovery. As we began playing together we realized we were going for something different than what we had done before, more like a chamber group.”

Similarly, the pairings with Fleck and Thile, and the duets with Eigsti, suggested more unusual textures than usually found on jazz-guitar recordings. “As soon as you see banjo, mandolin and guitar it offers you something that’s so vast and so different, and we worked well together,” says Lage. “Béla I’ve worked with since I was 12 or 13, and I wanted Thile because I admire him tremendously. He’s one of the greatest musical minds I’ve ever come across. We can bridge anything. The solo guitar pieces, meanwhile, connect everything. I wanted every song to be a different theme. By the end I don’t think you’re exhausted because you’ve been given pushes and pulls. I’d love for people to feel somewhat different than they did before they heard it. And this is only one hour, a day in the life kind of thing. There’s a lot more to come. I’m counting on it. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.”

Originally published in October 2009

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