When Julian Lage emerged on the music scene 13 years ago, the young San Francisco Bay Area-based musician was not only deemed a guitar-playing prodigy, but he was also offered record deals on numerous occasions. Playing a unique style that melded blues, classical, folk and jazz influences, Lage decided to wait for the right moment to document his own music. He chooses instead to become a sideman with established instrumentalists like Gary Burton and to collaborate with contemporaries such as pianist Taylor Eigsti. Along the way, Lage received recognition from musical luminaries, including Herbie Hancock and Béla Fleck, and patiently waited until he was ready to go into a studio with a band of like-minded players to realize his own musical vision.
Now the time has come. At the age of 21, the Boston-based Lage releases his debut album, Sounding Point on EmArcy Records, an imprint of Universal Records. The CD is remarkably the most striking—and sophisticated—premiere of a young instrumental artist and composer in years. The music ranges from through-composed works and impromptu improvisations in duo and trio settings to solo excursions and a finale capped by a masterful rendering of Miles Davis’s “All Blues.” Lage also delivers impressively original covers of Elliott Smith’s “Alameda” and Neil Hefti’s “Lil’ Darlin.”
“I’ve been in a position where I could have recorded an album when I was younger but was never in a rush because I wanted to allow these compositions to grow and evolve in their own time.” says Lage. “And within the past four years, I have felt the music really take shape in the way I had always imagined. I feel grateful that there were no pressures on me to make a record until I felt it was time.”
Sounding Point finds Lage leading his own band—including saxophonist Ben Roseth, cellist Aristides Rivas, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer/percussionist Tupac Mantilla—as well as special guests Eigsti, Fleck and renowned mandolinist Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers fame. The record is produced by Steven Epstein and engineered by Richard King, who in addition to collaborating on classical music projects has also worked on classical-crossover albums recorded by Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, Chick Corea’s Corea.Concerto, and Billy Joel’s Opus 1-10: Fantasies & Delusions: Music for Solo Piano. Lage says that after a lot of research, he decided that the Epstein-King team’s work on the Punch Brothers’ Punch debut was the sound and feeling he wanted to have on his first record.
“The point of this record was to express the underlying movement within the music,” says Lage, who though he may be a young virtuoso, never resorts to flashy technique on his acoustic and electric guitars (a Martin D-18GE and a Linda Manzer archtop, respectively). “I have an affinity for the guitar, and I’ve committed myself to being a student of the instrument. I have always been drawn to a technique that allows the music to take on a visual shape as well as a wide emotional spectrum.”
Sounding Point opens with Lage’s song “Clarity” which first appeared on Gary Burton’s 2005 album, Next Generation, on which Lage contributed three compositions. Lage says that he took his original version of “Clarity,” which was more like a jazz waltz, and re-envisioned it. “I had experienced it so many times playing live with Gary that I wanted to try something new with it,” he says. “So I broke it down, studied the building blocks of the composition and came up with a more expansive and cohesive version. It’s a rebirth.” The full band appears on this song, with a fine cello performance by Rivas, who is also spotlighted on “All Purpose Beginning,” a Lage number that is another 2.0 version of a composition that he wrote three months before the recording session. “I cut out and added new parts,” Lage says. “I was looking to use sounds that had a palpable quality to them, sounds you could really feel and visualize, like a pencil writing on paper. The song is about someone writing a letter.”
“Familiar Posture” is the first of two solo guitar pieces that each feature themes from another song in the collection. “It’s a solo improvisation inspired by a melodic idea from ‘Long Day, Short Night’ and is influenced by an Alfred Hitchcock feeling of suspense,” says Lage, who notes that the second solo, “Constructive Rest,” reflects another theme from “Long Day, Short Night” as well.
Three songs feature Lage in a trio setting with Fleck and Thile. Lage met the banjoist through mandolin maestro David Grisman, with whom he played when he was 10 years old. “Béla is one of those lifelong musical practitioners and has an incredible musical mind,” says Lage, who used to play backstage with Fleck for hours on end whenever the banjoist came to San Francisco. “And Chris is so great. I wanted the three of us to play together so we could find our collective musical voice and come up with an acoustic music sound that elaborated upon our improvisations.”
The sprightly “The Informant” is the soundscape “for someone escaping from prison, kind of like The Great Escape,” says Lage, while the whimsical “Long Day, Short Night” that is book-ended by a sense of melancholy is based upon a spur-of-the-moment improvisation Lage and Thile developed. “This piece came together quickly, with both of us coming up with different sections over the course of several rehearsals prior to Béla coming to the session. Once he arrived, he connected all the dots with his third-harmony parts.” The third song of the Lage-Fleck-Thile collaboration is Elliott Smith’s “Alameda”, a song selection Thile suggested.
With help from saxophonist Ben Roseth, Julian then delivers a beautifully melodic saxophone-guitar duet on the song “Peterborough”. This song was inspired by the street near Boston’s Fenway Park where Lage lives. The next composition, “Quiet, Through and Through,” was written for Lage’s friend, drummer Alex Kurland. “Lil Darlin” a Count Basie hit rendered as a sped-up song with Lage delivering Tony Rice-like grooves, is heard next. Taylor Eigsti joins Julian on the playful song “Tour One,” a collaborative composition from their repertoire.
Sounding Point closes with Lage’s full band (minus the cello) on the rhythmically adventurous “Motor Minder” featuring Roeder on bass and Mantilla on percussion). “All Blues,” a duet with Eigsti, is the duo’s “encore” piece: “Taylor and I both grew up playing the blues, and this song represents a side of our musical background that is very close to our hearts.”
“I really wanted to approach recording my first album from a holistic point of view,” says Lage. “And everything came together. It was a great group effort.”