A departure in two major ways, Arclight is Julian Lage’s recorded debut on electric guitar and his first album to delve deeply into non-original material. The format is a simple trio: Scott Colley on double bass, Kenny Wollesen on drums, plus occasional percussion overdubs. The song structures are tight; only three of the 11 tracks stretch past four minutes, and those just barely. Colley gets a chance to state the tune of the wistful original “Presley,” but otherwise Lage is the principal melodic voice here, and to say he holds the listener’s attention is an understatement. This is one of those rare albums that leaves you wishing it were much longer.
Both Lage’s choice of instrument, a Telecaster-style guitar, and the general mood of the music-call it eclectic Americana with a double shot of whimsy-bring Bill Frisell strongly to mind. So do some of Lage’s stylistic moves: frequent use of open strings and Monkian dissonances, deep R&B-style bent notes, country-fried double stops. But there’s a consistent take-no-prisoners quality to his playing that sets him apart from his obvious forerunner. The Tele’s piercing tone suits him to a tee, especially when he turns up the grit, as on the outstanding, vaguely Arabic-sounding “Prospero” and the opening “Fortune Teller,” which starts out fairly mellow, then busts into a unison riff midway through that’s shocking in its sudden aggression.
Other highlights include quick but memorable runs through Gus Kahn and Neil Moret’s ragtimey “Persian Rug,” W.C. Handy’s “Harlem Blues” and a winningly angular “I’ll Be Seeing You.” At certain moments-a staggered phrase here, a surprising interval leap there-you can almost hear the guitar grin. No longer a prodigy, Julian Lage now qualifies as a modern master.