Julian Lage Goes Electric
By Rob Nagy
A genuine prodigy by age 7, acoustic guitar virtuoso Julian Lage, now 28, showcases his talents on the electric guitar, with his newly formed trio, on “Arclight” (Mack Avenue Records).
“I took this as an opportunity to start a band and to play electric guitar, which is something I always wanted to do, but didn’t have an outlet for,” says Lage, from his home in New York City. “It was more the concept of not an acoustic guitar that we were electrifying but an electric guitar we were electrifying. In my case, it was a focus on the Telecaster and what would I do with the electric guitar, bass and drums? I kind of went down this rabbit hole, as far as material, and connected to songs from the 20’s and 30’s that were kind of forgotten. I always find there is a parallel between the birth of the electric guitar and the birth of early jazz writing. I grew up with so many jazz recordings that I just love - Jim Hall, Scofield, Metheny and Abercrombie. So, I just tried to find something that I felt maybe wasn’t represented conceptually and just went for it.”
“In a lot of ways, this was really a challenge,” adds Lage. “The last record I made was a solo acoustic guitar record. This [record] was a summation of a lot of years and, most recently, of a lot acoustic guitar focus. I had to learn and I had to focus, fine tune it and ask a lot of questions about it and fail at it in different ways. I’m thrilled with it.”
Offering an 11-song collection of works that have long been shelved in obscurity, Lage, backed by double bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen, rises to the occasion. Arclight features masterfully delivered interpretations of early 20th century classics and a handful of original compositions, including “Fortune Teller,” “Persian Rug,” “Nocturne,” “Supera,” “Stop Go Start,” “Activate,” “Presley,” “Prospero,” “I'll Be Seeing You,” “Harlem Blues” and “Ryland.”
Lage fondly remembers his professional introduction to the world at a tender age in the 1996 Oscar nominated documentary, “Jules at 8.”
“The documentary, as you would imagine, was kind of an unusual call to action,” recalls Lage. “It was made by Mark Brecker, a grad student at the time in the film department at Stanford. He was looking to do a film on a young musician who was also reconciling being a kid and going to school and doing kid stuff. So, he reached out to my family. My parents felt it was flattering, but there was no reason to have promotion at that point. I didn’t feel especially inclined to do it, so we respectfully declined the offer. Then he came back, ‘I’ve looked all around, but I still think Julian makes sense,’ for one reason or another.”
“We just took a gamble on it,” adds Lage. “It was filmed when I was 7. I started playing guitar when I was 5. What’s cool about it is that what [Brecker] ended up making was less a film about me personally and more about someone in my position. Even though I’m the subject, it’s not like a music documentary where you see someone playing a whole lot and you see them putting on shows. I play a couple of times, but briefly. It’s almost incidental. In a way, we got exactly what I think we had hoped for - a degree of anonymity while still being the focus.”
Lage recalls his debut performance Grammy Awards in the late 90’s, when he caught the attention of Gary Burton, resulting in a personal friendship and a musically collaborative adventure.
Citing this connection with the renowned vibraphonist as a pinnacle moment in his career, Lage recounts his initial connection with Burton.
“In the audience that night was Gary Burton. He wrote me a letter and got my phone number. He said, ‘I’m Gary and I would love to reach out to you and have a phone conversation.’ So, I called him and we had a great talk. He had a gig opportunity at the Ted conference. The theme that year was “Mentors and their Students.” Gary reached out and said, ‘I know we’re just meeting, but would you be okay playing the young person role for a generational presentation?’ I had been a fan of Gary’s. We played our first gig at the Ted conference and that went really well. So, he asked me to play with him on tour and that went really well. Then, it just kind of snowballed. Every opportunity we got to play together we took.”
At the invitation of Burton, Lage returned to the Grammy Awards in 2000 to perform with his mentor on stage.
“Gary is absolutely my greatest teacher in so many ways,” adds Lage. “The detailed specific technical level of how one becomes a jazz musician and how to carry yourself, just the most invaluable lessons. It began as a relationship with the up and coming kid and grew into a really wonderful thing - feeling like we’re colleagues in a way. It has been the greatest honor.”
“My parents have been incredible,” adds Lage. “I’m the youngest of 5 children. My family, as a whole, I feel so blessed to be a part of it. Everyone I was ever around as a young person just wouldn’t push me. There was no rush. I didn’t make my first record until I was 21. I was waiting until I could turn on all the frets. Everyone was just so supportive.”
An ascending star in the jazz community, Lage’s dedication to his art and appreciation for his fans and critics alike fuels his passion.
“I feel like now I have to work harder than ever, and I want to,” says Lage. “I just really push myself toward what I think is possible. I’m such a nerd for the music that I play, but also just guitar culture, the instrument, the history and the community. At the end of the day, it’s the same definition - try my best, make a lot of mistakes and connect with an audience and a community.”
“I feel so blessed to have anyone’s attention at all,” adds Lage. “If you come to the show, we’ll take good care of you. We’ll do our best to put on a concert and experience that hopefully will have integrity. That’s our number one focus right now.”
Julian Lage will perform at Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, on Tuesday March 8, 2016 at 8:00 P.M. Tickets are available by calling (215) 739-9684 or visiting www.johnnybrendas.com.
To stay up to date with Julian Lage, visit www.julianlage.com.