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Spotlight: Julian Lage

Jeff Tamarkin | April 12, 2018

Julian Lage has been acknowledged as a master guitarist for more than two-thirds of his life, which may not seem like that big of a deal until you take into account that he celebrated his 30th birthday last Christmas Day. When he was only eight years old, the Northern California native jammed onstage with Carlos Santana and was the subject of a documentary film (appropriately titled Jules at Eight). At 12, he played at the Grammys and, at 15, he became a faculty member at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. Before exiting his teens, he’d joined the band of jazz vibraphone great Gary Burton and, at 21, Lage released his debut album as a leader, Sounding Point, which included contributions from Chris Thile and Béla Fleck.

“I had a blast as a kid,” says Lage, phoning from Pisa, Italy, in January while on tour. “But I remember getting attention and thinking, ‘Wait ‘til I get really good.’” That modesty is characteristic but also unnecessary: Lage got “really good” really quickly and, today, he is undeniably one of the most creative and virtuosic axemen working within any genre. He’s habitually classified as a jazz musician but, in recent years, he’s diversified, thirsting for new means of expression.

That musical wanderlust is currently on display on Modern Lore (Mack Avenue), Lage’s most recent album, which traverses blues, rock and country as well as jazz. It’s Lage’s second release with the trio of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen, and the second to showcase him on electric guitar.

“In a lot of ways, it’s a prequel to the last record, Arclight,” says Lage of Modern Lore, which features 11 original compositions. “This is grooving music. The songs have the sensuality of a three-minute song but they lend themselves to a live, improvisational, more jam-oriented aesthetic. On Arclight, there were so many new components that I wanted to make a point about the vibe and the sound and the tempos.”

Lage has played and recorded as a solo guitarist, in duos (he’s made albums with Wilco’s Nels Cline, Punch Brothers’ Chris Eldridge and pianist Fred Hersch) and with larger ensembles, but he finds the trio format to be the best fit for his style—at the moment. “If people want to hear me play right now, they’ve gotta hear the trio,” he says. “For me, it’s kind of relationship-driven. I just love it. But I feel that I kind of play the same way with all of my projects; it’s just contextualized differently. Even with the bluegrass stuff I’m involved with, I’m playing the same vocabulary, except that I’m holding an acoustic guitar. With Fred, there’s a piano, so it’s an orchestral study.”