Guitarist Julian Lage once again indulges his inner historian on Modern Lore, the follow-up to his trio’s 2016 studio debut, Arclight. The latter was inspired by the pre-bop tunes of the early 1920s, and the former plays off a much more alien influence (at least in the jazz and jazz-adjacent realms): early rock. But as with Arclight, it’s hardly a reverent tribute—you won’t find any Chuck Berry covers or other sock-hop fare. Instead, Lage’s 11 original compositions abstract some of the most iconic sounds in American music, with hints of rock, country and folk all coming through in his warm, intimate tone.
Lage’s lyrical playing is backed by impeccably restrained performances from bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen (with keyboardist Tyler Chester offering occasional spare, almost imperceptible harmonies). Whether they’re playing uptempo swing (“Look Book”), a country shuffle (“Atlantic Limited”) or a bluesy waltz (“Roger the Dodger”), the trio favors brevity (most of the songs are under four minutes long) and understatement.
That is not to say the cozy result lacks urgency. Lage’s virtuosity manifests in precise, clear improvisation that doesn’t require technical fireworks, spotlighting instead his remarkable gift for melody. In the few moments when his experimental side comes through, though, it’s clear how important dissonance and dynamics are to tempering the album’s generally gentle, whimsical sound. The project’s finale, “Pantheon,” has an asymmetrical melody that mostly abandons the album-wide insistence on groove. The result is beautiful, and that’s at least partially because of Lage’s ability to deploy familiarity as a tool, not a crutch.