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Julian Lage: Stepping Into the Limelight

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."

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