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Julian Lage: Stepping Into the Limelight

By Published: March 23, 2009
Burton, a renowned educator as well as a superior vibes player, saw the Grammy telecast, where Lage was part of a group of young musicians invited to do a number. He says Lage's solo was brief, but enough to convince him that he had immense potential. Through the Grammy people, Burton got a phone number and called up the young guitarist. Burton was to perform at a music conference not that far from Lage's home and invited the young guitarist to play with him.

"The reason Gary called me was because the theme was something like, Masters and Rising Artists. Something like that. He said, 'Will you be my rising artist. We can have talk and have a dialog on stage about whatever there is to talk about.'" At that event, Herbie Hancock was sitting in the front row. Burton asked him to sit in and the pianist complied. "It was really wonderful, needless to say," recalls Lage.

Says Burton, ""I was constantly astonished at how musical he was, how mature he was and how fast he was growing and learning and all. I consider him one of the most amazing musicians I've crossed paths with in my career. He always surprises me."

Lage became a member of the Burton band, "from when I was about 12 to 17. It was huge. Just an amazing experience. Like a launching pad, of sorts. I became associated with this master musician and he's a responsible person and he's a wonderful guy. And he takes good care of us. And I learned what it means to be a bandleader. I met a lot of great role models and he was a huge inspiration for me. He still is." Burton's recordings—Generations (Concord, 2004) and Next Generation (Concord, 2005) document that period. Lage contributed composition to both, as well as his hot guitar work.

In 2005, he played on Nnenna Freelon's Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday (Concord), a Grammy-nominated album. In addition to other sideman gigs that spawned from his growing reputation, Lage started a musical relationship with an old friend, Taylor Eigsti—one that eventually produced another Grammy-nominated disk, the pianist's Lucky to be Me (Concord, 2006). The duo is very simpatico in performance at clubs and concert venues, and is still active.

Julian Lage "Taylor and I grew up together in the Bay area. I was 11, he was 13 or 14," says Lage. "We played once, then kind of lost contact. Then we played together again at the Stanford Jazz Workshop for a gig when I was 15. From then on, we've been close musical partners, working on a lot of projects together. And also close friends. He's insanely brilliant. I think I've been mostlt influenced by him, and in some ways he might say he's been influenced by me. We go back and forth as a support club. 'What are you listening to? How do we apply it to this?'

"As a duo, it's one representation of our interaction. It's very personal. I think that's why the shows work well for us. You get to see a very streamlined look into our world. It's been a great blessing in my life to know Taylor and be playing with him."

As he gathers work with numerous outstanding artists, and now pushes his own group and continues writing interesting music, Lage is not looking back. He has no second thoughts about choosing a life in music. "Something bigger than me chose it," he avows.

"Any good relationship—any relationship that's grounded and has the potential for growth—it's usually not your own doing. You couldn't imagine anything as good as this. Therefore, I know it wasn't me that made it up," he says with a soft laugh.

And no matter what style—or blending of styles—that the clean-toned guitarist opts to examine, he continues to hold the art of improvisation as special. "Existing without the need to define anything—to just play music that's not a song, play music that's not written by someone else, to play music that's improvised—I love exploring that. I think it's within all of us."

He adds, "Jazz gets a lot of credit for being an improvising art form and it absolutely is. But it's my experience that improvisation, though it's different, is still very prevalent in bluegrass, or Irish music, or Indian music or African music. Even in electronic stuff there's improvisation. And in classical.

"I'm exploring what's already there."

Selected Discography:

Julian Lage, Sounding Point (EmArcy, 2009)
Taylor Eigsti, Let It Come To You (Concord, 2008)
Taylor Eigsti, Lucky to be Me (Concord, 2006)
Gary Burton, Next Generation (Concord, 2004)
Nnenna Freelon, Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday (Concord, 2005)
Gary Burton, Generations (Concord, 2003)
Dave Grisman, Dawg Duos, (Acoustic Disk, 1999)

Photo Credit

Michael Kurgansky

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