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Julian Lage Trio in Boston, Dec. 31, 2011

A rising star guitarist and his new trio ring in the new year in style

This year the Boston leg of National Public Radio’s annual New Year’s Eve “Toast of the Nation” featured guitarist Julian Lage’s crack new trio with Larry Grenadier on bass and Eric Harland on drums, plus special guest (and Julian Lage Group band mate) Dan Blake on tenor saxophone. The hour-long live set took place at the Berklee Performance Center, the nightclub ambience of previous years’ “Toast” segments in Boston giving way to a setting more accessible to the crowds sampling the city’s assorted First Night celebrations.

As in years past, though, the live nationwide radio broadcast meant some priming of the audience was in order. Longtime WGBH radio host Eric Jackson stepped onstage just before the 8 p.m. performance to urge those in attendance to applaud “so they can hear you all the way across the country.” In fact, Jackson added, he personally knew some people who would be listening to NPR’s simultaneous webcast in Paris, “so maybe you should clap in French.”

Once the music itself got underway the audience needed no prompting to applaud. The band opened with “233 Butler,” from Lage’s recent album Gladwell. Lage, who had celebrated his 24th birthday on Christmas Day, took the first solo, straying widely from what he’d done with it on the recording but as phenomenally fleet-fingered as always. Blake’s impressive solo followed, short and fiery, and then Harland took over with a two-minute beaut of his own, prodded along toward the end by comping from the others.

Lage’s “Greylighting” was next, the tune’s tricky melody having almost an Irish-folk feel to it. Harland switched to brushes here, and Lage introduced the theme and, after Blake joined him on it, took the first solo. For all of his solo’s complexity and sophistication, he made it look easy, casually plucking the guitar strings and at one point literally playing with one hand (his left) behind his back for a short stretch. Blake, who had played a pair of small Boston clubs earlier in the month promoting his own excellent The Aquarian Suite, had a little more room to stretch out when his turn came here and made the most of it. His solo took off by repeating a phrase that had ended Lage’s, and then-aside from a short pause to let Lage echo one of his lines-the ideas flowed fluidly from Blake until it was time for the two of them to jointly work their magic playing around with the melody.

The Irving Berlin standard “Best Thing for You” [a.k.a. “The Best Thing for You (Would Be Me)”] followed, with a sublime introductory improvisation from Lage eventually joined by Blake’s blues-tinged statement of the melody. The sax solo that followed was bluesier still in places, and masterfully inventive throughout, and when Lage took his turn he made it clear he can stick close to the jazz tradition when the mood strikes him. Blake did likewise when it came time for them to restate the theme, but first Grenadier got his chance to shine. The lone bass solo of the set was richly melodic and energetic, and nicely offset by Harland’s drumming.

A short, mid-concert interview with Lage, conducted by Eric Jackson, came next, which ended with Lage introducing “a new piece written a week ago,” a composition in two movements titled “Up from the North.” This one was quietly complex, with shifts in mood and tempo, and playing that was freer and more abstract than what had come before. Some visually aided telepathy between Lage and Harland during Lage’s solo on the first movement was fun to watch; the second movement seemed built largely around a ghostly trill from Blake’s sax and some deliciously infectious creeping from the rhythm section.

Lage then grabbed a microphone to introduce another of his compositions that he would perform alone. “I think this is my dad’s favorite song, “he explained, “which is why I’m playing it. And so I hope he’s listening right now. This is called ‘The Time It Takes.’ It’s kind of my mock version of a country waltz. We’re about due for a country waltz, I thought, so…”

His band mates stayed onstage for the short, quiet piece, Jackson came out to rattle off the musicians’ names one more time, and the band took the Boston segment of “Toast” out with a Blake original from Gladwell titled “However.” The group’s rapid-fire version of the tune had a jam-session feel to it, Lage and Blake obviously enjoying themselves tearing up the familiar melody, right up until its sudden conclusion with a ring from Lage’s guitar and a final breathy note from Blake’s tenor. You wouldn’t have believed the four of them had played their first concert as a group just the night before in New Haven.

That last bit may not have made the live broadcast, as the set ran a little longer than its scheduled hour. But you can catch the whole thing, Jackson’s mid-set interview with Lage included, here.

Originally Published