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Before & After With Julian Lage

A versatile guitar phenom, with A jazz core

Julian Lage at Winter Jazz Fest 2012
Julian Lage

Lately, Julian Lage has been a prolific collaborator. The 26-year-old guitarist, raised in the Northern California town of Santa Rosa, has outgrown his prodigy status and refocused his playing in a stylistically wide range of settings: a duo project with Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge, a forthcoming duo album with Nels Cline, and Rude Ruth, a Telecaster-centric project with singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy. On July 22 he’ll appear at the Max M. Fisher Music Center in Detroit, in a program featuring modern folk luminaries Jeremy Kittel, Aoife O’Donovan and Paul Kowert.

Yet Lage hasn’t lost sight of his jazz roots. He appeared on five releases in 2013 as a sideman or co-leader, including Guided Tour (Mack Avenue), the latest offering from the New Gary Burton Quartet, and Free Flying (Palmetto), the most recent installation of Fred Hersch’s inspired duo collaborations.

Lage recently celebrated his straight-ahead background at New York City’s Blue Note club with “Playing for Jim Hall,” a tribute to the late guitar icon featuring Bill Frisell, Scott Colley, Joey Baron, Chris Potter and others. In between rehearsals with Frisell, Lage participated in his first Before & After for JazzTimes at his Upper West Side apartment.


“Vendredi 13” (Django Reinhardt 1940-1941, Classics). Reinhardt, guitar; Hubert Rostaing, clarinet; Alix Combelle, clarinet and chimes; Joseph Reinhardt, guitar; Tony Rovira, bass; Pierre Fouad, drums. Rec. in 1940, rel. in 1995.

BEFORE: It’s Django, right? What is it? It’s so good. My guess is Django. Man, he really plays.

AFTER: I grew up obsessed with Django. David Grisman gave me a small box set of Django Reinhardt for my birthday when I was maybe 12 or 13 and I cherished it so much, so he’s always held a dear place in my heart. In recent years, I started going back to Django and realizing that not only is he one of the most fluid, elegant and adventurous improvisers, he’s one of the greatest acoustic guitar players there ever was. The sound that he renders and the technique that he brings to the table, every virtuosic thing, sounds like a human gesture, versus something that’s added on to a creative impulse.

What I really like about that track is hearing him interact with the drummer, because a lot of the power of the Hot Club’s earlier stuff is how they got this rhythmic propulsion from the many rhythm guitar players and the bass. The drummer was so keyed into Django. It seemed almost like Django was egging him on, and he was really kind of feeding off of it. Not that dissimilar from the way you hear Wes [Montgomery] feeding off of Jimmy Cobb on Smokin’ at the Half Note. He’s not only leading the band, he’s also got this relationship he’s fostering with the drummer. I could listen to that all day.


“My One and Only Love” (Songs We Know, Nonesuch). Frisell, guitar; Hersch, piano. Recorded in 1997.

BEFORE: Songs We Know was one of my favorite records growing up. When I was about 8 years old, they let me sit in on jazz classes at Sonoma State University. My friend Ross would always hang out with me and my dad and talk about guitar. I remember him giving us a cassette of this record. My dad had a tape player in the truck and we used to listen to this all the time. It was always on, and it was always perfect. This went on for years, until we got a CD player in the car, so this is very dear to my heart. And it’s gorgeous. Having a duo project with Fred has been really interesting. I can’t pretend I haven’t heard this seminal work, but it’s taught me so much. I can’t do what Bill does, but I can do what I do. I’ll get too dark if I wish I were that, so I just do what I do, which has something else, but it’s coming from a place of very deep respect for this. I think the word for Bill is “integration”-the way he’s so poised, so present and leads the music, but it’s always born of the sonic atmosphere. To hear someone bring electric guitar to Fred’s dynamic sound where it’s basically like an acoustic chamber instrument-that’s kind of what I’m after. I have been since I started. This is that at its finest. It doesn’t get much better than hearing two masters play songs that have been great since they were written. So this is a desert island record for me.


“Trav’lin’ Light” (The Standard Sonny Rollins, RCA Victor). Rollins, tenor saxophone; Jim Hall, guitar; Herbie Hancock, piano; David Izenzon, bass; Stu Martin, drums. Recorded in 1964.

BEFORE: It’s Jim Hall. It sounds like Sonny after The Bridge. Is that cello? It might be overdubbed arco bass.

AFTER: Get out! I think the combination of Sonny and Jim is pretty righteous. Sonny has this obvious power but not intuitive power-power in the way of a great force of nature. And Jim, how he interacts is the perfect counterpoint to Sonny, because he’s an equal force. It reminds me of Fred and Bill, in the sense that they’re not vying for the same territory. There’s a palpable energy of faith with this music: “Anything you do is going to be great and anything I do is going to be great, and we should just go ahead and do it.” No one’s being too careful, and thank God for that. It’s also hip to hear Herbie in there. He’s so distinctive, but it’s also complementary to the situation. This is great. I haven’t heard this before. It’s wild.


“Asphodel” (Six Pack, GRP). Burton, vibraphone; Jim Hall, guitar; Larry Goldings, keyboards; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Steve Swallow, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 1991-1992.

BEFORE: I want to say it’s this record Reunion with Gary and Pat [Metheny]. But I say that because it’s one that I’ve never heard of Gary’s. So I could be way off. I wonder if it’s a Carla Bley tune. Whoever wrote it, I want a composition lesson. It’s definitely Gary. Oh, it’s with Jim! I remember Gary talking about this.

AFTER: Jim Hall always comes up, especially with Gary. Jim Hall was a big influence on him, too, and a couple of major events happened because of Jim. Jim introduced Gary to Steve Swallow, which is pretty interesting, since they’ve had a lifelong partnership. When Gary first moved to New York, Jim said, “You know, I’ve got just the bass player for you-this guy Steve.” So they hooked up, and then at around the same time, he said, “You know, I think you would really appreciate this guy Astor Piazzolla.”

And Gary and Astor did that record [1986’s El Nuevo Tango].

They did the record and he wrote for Gary. And a lot of Gary’s approach to comping on the instrument, using four mallets for greater harmonic implications, is very much connected to Jim’s approach; Jim stylistically was always the master of using very few notes to create a big footprint. Gary will often cite him. It all comes back to Jim, which I can certainly relate to.


“Fire Night” (Improvisations, World Pacific). Shankar, sitar; Bud Shank, flute; Gary Peacock, bass; Kanai Dutta, tabla. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: My guess for this is the ’60s or ’70s.

AFTER: I thought it was Bud Shank! That’s wild. When I was 13, I used to go to the Ali Akbar College of Music, which is in San Rafael, about 45 minutes from my house in Santa Rosa, and I studied sitar for six months and tabla for six months. I loved it, and it was very evident from the start that this is something that I would be on the periphery of, because I thought, “God, this is deserving of a life’s work and then some.” I’ve heard some people say in Indian culture that you need about 120 years to master an instrument, so you’re in it for about a life and a half.

I was there for a year. I took a lesson from Ali Akbar Khan, the master sarod player. The lesson probably lasted an hour, and 40 minutes of it was spent with Ali Akbar Khan tuning my guitar. I think it might have been just drop-D [tuning], but to watch him tune for 40 minutes was so mind-blowing, especially when it was my own guitar. You could hear the gorgeous overtones, and then they’d get more gorgeous. And then he would do a test chord, and you would start to lose track of which string was which. It just sounded like an aura of sound.

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Originally Published