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."

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."



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