Julian Lage: Stepping Into the Limelight

R.J. DeLuke By

Sign in to view read count
Julian LageA documentary film made in 1996 centers on an eight year-old guitarist who is already a professional and how he mixes that life with everything else, like family and being a kid. At one point, he's shown playing the guitar behind his neck, a la Jimi Hendrix, adroitly picking a melodic line. At another, he lays down some serious blues licks. A voice off camera inquires, "What'cha been listening to lately?"

"Lots of Wes Montgomery. Coltrane," the articulate lad intones, matter-of-factly.

The film was Jules at Eight, a 24-minute short by then-fledgling documentary filmmaker Mark Becker, subsequently nominated for an Academy Award.

The guitar prodigy was Julian Lage, who started playing professionally in the San Francisco Bay area at the age of seven and who, over the years to his ripe old current age of 21, has played with the likes of Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Mark O'Connor, Frank Vignola and more, and has appeared on Grammy-nominated albums by classy vocalist Nnenna Freelon and his friend, pianist Taylor Eigsti.

"It was crazy. It was a really healthy experience," says Lage, who played mostly blues and jazz in those early years. It seems Becker, now an award-winning maker of documentaries, was doing a project for his thesis at Stanford University. "He wanted a young subject who was playing music professionally and leading some resemblance of a normal childhood. He was interested in me. But my parents spoke to him and said, 'We're not really interested. Thank you, but no thanks.' We turned him on to some other players. He checked them out and he came back and said, 'I think I'd like to pursue Jules, if that's possible.'

"After some meetings, realizing that it was to be done from a positive point of view and not an exploitation of me but more about him as a filmmaker, we all agreed it would be good. It's really neat. I came out beautifully. I think he did an exceptional job. It's cool now, as I get older, to have this part of my life documented so artistically, so accurately."

A lot happened early to Lage, including his first recording at age 11 with the renowned Dave Grisman, and being discovered around that same age by vibes master Burton after being seen performing on the nationally televised Grammy Awards telecast. He's developed into a player of prodigious technique. He's studied jazz and classical music, was weaned on blues, and has covered bluegrass, folk and similar stylings by hanging with the likes of banjo wizard Bela Fleck and playing Dawg Music, mandolin player extraordinaire Grisman's special brand of music that incorporates many types of American music, including bluegrass and jazz.

Observed on stage, Lage picks complex and attractive figures from his Martin acoustic axe with clean and sharp articulation—and a kind of ease. He knows his way around the electric, too.

Julian Lage Yes, a lot happened at an early age and there's plenty more for this talented west coaster turned Bostonian. He's beginning to step more into the limelight, and with that comes his first recording as a leader, Sounding Point (EmArcy, 2009). It is a good musical representation of Lage's career thus far, covering the styles he loves in different configurations. It also gives a glimpse of where he's going, at least in the near term. He says the time was right to make this musical statement.

"It felt like the right time for a number of reasons," Lage said in February 2009, just hours before boarding an airplane to Paris to promote the new disk. "I've been traveling mostly as a sideman for most of my musical career and loved it; I loved being in that position, learning from these master players.

"I had offers when I was younger to make my own record. Though I felt like I could put something together, I never felt that I was going to make the record that I wanted to listen to. I always had this dream of making a record that was kind of between styles. Not only jazz, but bluegrass, classical and other influences. The big turning point for me was moving to Boston from California. I went to Berklee for a couple years. Within that time I started caching ideas for a record. What would this hybrid record be? The first part was having the space or the time to do it and focus on it. The second was putting the band together. Once I found the musicians that could play this stuff beautifully and inspire me to no end, then I knew this was the right time.

"Everything came together organically around the band."

The CD has many colors and moods, from the elegant and thoughtful solo guitar of "Familiar Posture" and "Constructive Rest," to the delicate interplay of Lage's band, with cello and saxophone dancing deftly with Lage's guitar lines on "Clarity." There are trio collaborations with special guests Fleck and Nickel Creek/Punch Brothers mandolinist Chris Thile that exhibit remarkable interplay and support. All three mesh superbly on "Alameda." There are also examples of the impressive Eigsti-Lage duo, including a rendition of "All Blues."

Says Lage, "It's almost a retrospective record as a first record because I've been so fortunate to weave in and out of the acoustic world, the jazz world and the blues world—in duos and trios and different configurations. I felt really lucky because I could draw on the lot. When I was putting together the record I wanted it to showcase the first stage of my musical life, the last 15 or 16 years. Calling on Béla and Chris made a lot of sense. I grew up playing a lot with Béla. Practicing with him, hanging out with him when I was younger. Thile was someone I had heard about through a lot of mutual friends. I admired his music. We'd crossed paths, but we never actually connected until I decided to do this record. I said, "We're going to get Chris and Béla together and we're going to write some stuff." It was such a natural process and it showcases what I grew up with, which wasn't straight-ahead jazz always."

A CD release party is slated for March 31, 2009 at Joe's Pub in New York City.

Burton, one of his mentors, had been listening to the music before its release. "I was amazed at how original the stuff is. I didn't know what he was going to do for his first record. It turned out to be this fascinating mix of folk and classical and jazz. I've got to hand it to him. He really came up with something original," says Burton.

"I'm thrilled," notes Lage. "I'm very, very excited about this project." The band was put together specifically for the record, but the guitarist hopes to be playing with these musicians in clubs and venues, getting the music out and developing it more. He also is already planning another recording that would feature the band, as well as other possible configurations. New compositions are something Lage will also include.

"I love the process of composing," he says. "I admit it's scary. I'm not one of those folks who feel completely comfortable all the time. I have more experience improvising than composing. I think I'm developing a more natural relationship with composition. I'll sit down even with a somewhat bad idea and trust that something good will come out of it. I know it's worth the time."

The current band is important to Lage, and he wants to keep it his main priority over other performing and recording possibilities. "The guys in the band are just as committed as I am. I feel a responsibility to not only maintain what we did on the record, but really push it forward. It's a great, fun, wonderful responsibility. I love putting everything I can into it."

Lage put everything he can into playing the guitar since childhood.

"My preference as a guitarist is acoustic. If I can just play the Martin D-18GE, that's what I use, every day, I would. As an experience, it's amazing. You have this full range of frequencies. It's loud, it's quiet. It's everything. The reality is, I couldn't play acoustic all the time with my band because there are volume issues and timbre issues," he says. "But electric guitar is incredible. I feel very lucky to have this setup I have. It manages really well with this band and allows me to cross over into stuff like Eric Harland's group or Taylor's group; higher-energy jazz ensembles. I like to be able to back and forth, but in my heart I'm an acoustic guitarist."

While jazz is a strong part of his background, it doesn't limit Lage. He enjoys all the flavors he has sampled over the years and has found ways to meld them. He also finds opportunities for improvisation in any style.

"As a player, I feel I can move in the cracks between jazz and folk and blues guitar. That's how I view myself. An acoustic guitarist primarily, who can play in these different fields. I don't see myself as a jazz guitarist, but there's no question that it's a huge part of my influences. Part of my background in jazz guitar is the Django Reinhardt gypsy stuff. Growing up I was really fascinated by Jim Hall, Charlie Christian, Django. That's my introduction. I wouldn't say I have a strong bebop guitar background. I have more of a modern jazz guitar background."

"What's heard on the record, and hopefully in the music to come, comes from a lot of areas. I wouldn't say that there shouldn't be genres, because I think that's healthy. But my typical musical day is a lot of classical music, a lot of acoustic music, some jazz—less so lately—experimental electronic music. I'm trying to receive as much as possible, so that I feel when I write it is kind of natural—whatever comes out is what feels natural. In retrospect, you can say I took from an impressionistic-style harmony, or I took from a Tony Rice-style rhythm guitar thing. But in the moment it's not as deliberate. It's not like: Tony Rice + Ravel = me.

"It feels really natural. I like it. There are so many players that embody that. Even Herbie [Hancock] or Pat Metheny, or my contemporaries like Taylor or Aaron Parks. The lines are blurring. We all know that. So I feel happy to be a part of that movement where everything works together."

Gary Burton / Julian Lage Among his influences besides jazz musicians are French and Russian composers. People like Debussy and Ravel. "A lot of Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Really passionate stuff. Astor Piazzolla. A lot of Björk. That's more modern. A big part is film scores. If I saw a movie and I thought the score was interesting, I'd study it. Those old Hitchcock movies with Bernard Herrmann scores were really big influences."

The youngest of five children, Lage was four when his father bought a guitar for himself and began to tinker with it. Lage liked the look of it and asked for one. He was told he could get one in a year if he was still interested. Meanwhile, one of his brothers got a guitar, but hated it. "I think in many ways that was even more reason for me to start, because there was one in the house now. He wasn't using it. I couldn't wait to use it." He began at age five and by the time he was seven, he was playing out in public and getting paid.

"I had really great guitar teachers in the Bay area. If they had a gig locally at a club or café or performance facility, they'd invite me to play. It wasn't my own music, at that point, but it was a lot of variety. Blues musicians, jazz musicians. Just kind of being part of the Bay area scene, I guess. That's when I started playing in different configurations."

Lage was born in Santa Rosa, California, and says the Bay Area is still a good area for young musicians to develop. "From my view, it was a great place to grow up.

"It takes getting turned on by different music teachers," he says. "My parents were listening to everything from [Antonio Carlos] Jobim to John Martyn, Boz Scaggs. It was never pushed on me. There was always music in the household. I never got that into rock and roll. I never was that into pop music. I don't know why. I certainly have nothing against it. I was lucky. I was into jazz. My parents took it seriously. They didn't assume that I should be doing something else. They said, 'OK. We trust you.' They made it happen. They fueled that excitement and that curiosity through my whole childhood."

Still a youngster, he studied Western classical music at the San Francisco Conservatory and pursued jazz studies at Sonoma State University. He also attended Ali Akbar College of Music, where he studied Indian music and later studied advanced classical composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

As far as getting acclimated to jazz, Lage says there was no one singular moment, such as an important album, or artist. "There's nothing that was: 'Oh, that's what I want to do when I grow up.' It was like: This is what I do. I play guitar and I love it."

He adds, "There are always people [as influences], from Miles to Jim Hall to Bill Evans to Sonny Rollins. Django. Movies scores. There's all this happening and it's all great. There really wasn't one thing where I would say, 'This is why I got into it.' Recently that's happened more. Seeing the Wayne Shorter Quartet several times in the last few years. That's when I go, 'Wow, that's what I want to do when I grow up.' Or seeing Björk live. Wow, that's a turning point. So, it happened a little bit later for me. I was just so receptive to everything, it was like: If it's music, I'm there. I'm into it. It was music and school and family. Hopefully I had a healthy balance of all of them."

Taylor Eigsti / Julian Lage At 11, he played the duet "Old Souls" for Grisman's Dawg Duos (Acoustic Disc, 1999). "That was my first recording. That opened up a lot of connections, musically and otherwise," Lage notes. The album included Grisman in duets with Fleck, violin masters Mark O'Connor and Vassar Clements and more. "It was only a year later that I started playing with Gary [Burton]."

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

Post a comment



Shop Amazon



All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded albums and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, limited reopenings and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary step that will help musicians and venues now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the sticky footer ad). Thank you!

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.