Julian Lage: Stepping Into the Limelight

R.J. DeLuke By

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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

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