Ulita Knaus and Julian Lage Aim for the Heights in Dusseldorf, Germany

Phillip Woolever By

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Ulita Knaus, Julian Lage Savoy Theatre Dusseldorf, Germany January 22, 2010
Heavily-hyped guitar wizard Julian Lage must know, as a fresh and youthful prodigy, that his time in the big spotlight could be coming. The experienced Ulita Knaus has already occupied centerstage and is now in a position to concentrate on making timeless music. Together, the pair set a high standard for this year's Jazz Today series tour, which they kicked off with their co-billing.
Knaus has an impressive vocal range and is visually attractive. Those qualities can provoke attention in some social circles, but in the entertainment industry they just put you in a long line of other talented, good- looking hopefuls. What sets Knaus apart from many other sultry songstresses is her excellent songwriting ability.

She personified still waters running deep during original songs like "Time," "Fly" and "I can Wait," showing her confident and competent scat abilities. By the time of keyboardist/collaborator Mischa Schumann's extended piano break during "Places to Be," he and versatile bassist Gerold Donker were locked in with crisp drummer Ole Seimetz, who cooked on a compact Canopus kit.

Knaus is an interpreter in the tradition of other jazz storytellers with her take on hybrid lounge poetry and bluesy ballads. The high point of her performance came during "In the City," when everything from the tightly pulsing backup to the stage lighting came together in near-perfect harmony. As interpreted by her, the material sounded worthy of "standard" songbook status: it was a charged, arena-level moment.

The show's only flaw, from an audience member's perspective, was inconsequential to the music. Schumann's keyboards were positioned in such a way that few patrons in the front-seat section could see his hands or the keys, which became an issue for those spectators during many piano interludes.

This tour, touted as a "best of" evening from Knaus' decade long catalog, offers the kind of engaging resume that deserves week-long Manhattan and California coast runs. Musically, it would seem only just that she receive a well-deserved opportunity to expand her fan base beyond its current, primarily German borders.

As for Lage, the future could be unlimited. He and his unique quintet were the crowd favorites on this evening. Lage's 1932 Gibson L5 sounded crystal-clear while his fingers were a blur moving up and down the frets during an ample sampling of his Grammy-nominated debut, Sounding Point (2009, Decca).

At this stage of his early-twenties career Lage still has to find a more mainstream signature sound to bring his artistry to the masses, but until then it will remain pleasure enough just to witness his already substantial skill. Whether or not he can eventually reach iconic status among a burgeoning fan base is impossible to predict, but he certainly appears to have a chance. Longer shots with lesser licks have paid off in the land of showbiz kids-turned-superstars, but reaching widespread lasting fame among followers of the music requires a bit of the magic characterizing a Charlie Christian, Les Paul or Jimi Hendrix.

While Lage handles the mixed blessing of maintaining a personal voice and being promoted as the next big thing with a level head, his energetic bandmates seemed to be having a great time, immediately engaging the audience. Lage's crew bubbled with a youthful exuberance that, even apart from the leader, rubbed off on the audience in the most complimentary sense.

Lage didn't show any jet-lag fatigue coming off his extended Eastern U.S. appearances. Instead, he appeared on stage as if bursting with earnest pride while displaying masterful chops during an hour-long romp that rotated group and trio formats in a continually entertaining mix. Indeed, he and his sidekicks took their freshly recruited bandwagon of customers on a ride that provided many smiles. At one early break a beautiful woman in the fourth row murmured "joyous," and many nearby patrons nodded in agreement.

Saxophonist Dan Blake was an MVP candidate while the entire ensemble (Jorge Roeder/bass,Tupac Mantilla/percussion,Aristedes Rivas/cello) cascaded through extended dialogues that seemed to hold many spontaneous contributions from the featured musicians amid intricately-chorded charts. Midway through a fifteen-minute introductory jam it became obvious that tonight wasn't simply going to consist of Lage showing off a series of well-rehearsed advertisements for himself.

When Lage explored a Southern USA-style shuffle, then drifted into pulling some Latin heartstrings, the mix was equally tantalizing and soulful, sparking an impressive flurry of emotion. A follow-up version of "Move" by Miles Davis illustrated Lage's rare and considerable range as both an improviser and a student of the giants of the past.

Mantilla was a walloping wonder who pounded multiple surfaces, including himself. His crowd-pleasing solo with a traditional drum kit setup employing unique material surfaces was one of the night's outstanding percussion demonstrations.

By the time of the closing "Master Minder," Lage had achieved a strong blend of abstract hard bop with a chunky dose of urbanized salsa. The assembled swarm were highly appreciative, howling with unremitting glee as both Lage and the boys looked genuinely thrilled.

Lage performed a solo encore with a multi-running take on Elizabeth Cotten's American classic "Freight Train." The expression on his face during the song was as communicative as the speed and dexterity of his hands all night. It was a gaze combining bliss, intensity, and perhaps gratitude for a gift capable of taking him to higher and higher levels while inspiring others to join him on the limitless odyssey.

That's a blessing reserved for those we ultimately place among the immortals.

Photo credit

Courtesy of Thiessen Agency

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