Julian Lage, guitar – Arclight – Mack Ave.

by | Apr 18, 2016 | Jazz CD Reviews

Guitarist Julian Lage plugs in.

Julian Lage – Arclight [TrackList follows] – Mack Ave. MAC1107, 36:45 [3/11/16] ****:

(Julian Lage – guitar; Kenny Wollesen – drums, percussion; Scott Colley – bass)

In the rock music community, going unplugged (or primarily concentrating on acoustic instruments) is enough of an unusual turn it becomes a special event. In the jazz realm, it’s the opposite for some artists. Young guitarist Julian Lage (who isn’t yet 30) is as an example of plugging in and adding amplification and electricity. Lage’s 37-minute outing, Arclight, is the first time he’s employed electric guitar—specifically a Fender Telecaster, which Lage considers “the most refined embodiment of the modern guitar.” Arclight also marks other firsts for Lage. This is his debut on the Mack Avenue label (home to Herlin Riley, Christian McBride and Cyrille Aimée); and the first time Lage has recorded in a trio format: he’s superbly supported by double bassist Scott Colley (Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, Brian Blade and more) and drummer Kenny Wollesen (a busy rock and jazz percussionist who has collaborated with David Byrne and has worked extensively with both Bill Frisell and John Zorn).

Arclight follows Lage’s first completely solo record, World’s Fair (2015) and his 2014 duo two-guitar project, ROOM, with Nels Cline (see Wilco). Listening to Arclight is like hearing liberation brought into auditory focus. The trio’s 11 tracks adhere to a two-pronged trajectory. On the one hand, Lage decided to perform tunes “that I feel maybe fell through the cracks for me when I was growing up, but now feel like a brand new kind of music.” Those four pieces include material by famed blues master W.C. Handy, a little-known piano roll by Gus Kahn, the oft-covered “I’ll Be Seeing You” (done by Dean Martin, Sonny Rollins and a long list of others) and a beautiful translation of the ballad “Nocturne.” These are the tracks which Lage describes as “jazz before be-bop.” However, the CD’s program also has Lage originals which exemplify a different stage of jazz: the Keith Jarrett American quartet period, which ran through the 1970s and centered on explorative improvisation, a joining of jazz and world folk music, and a willingness to escape jazz’s traditionalism.

Lage and his trio manage to balance both of these types of moods (lyrical traditionalism and contemporary, sometimes dissonant sounds) across the 11 numbers. The threesome commence with Lage’s original tune, the mid-tempo “Fortune Teller,” which has a brawny throb and bluesy licks where Lage emphasizes the Fender’s high tone but also rumbles down into deeper tonality, while navigating the fretboard with biting notes. He hits a samba sensibility on another original, “Supera,” (a Spanish adjective for exceeds), which has a bright sonic plumage. Lage spins out marvelous, generally clean, effects-free guitar lines (he uses a smidge of distortion at one point). “Stop Go Start” has some of the outsider-jazz traction which permeates Cline’s releases, but is nimbly mixed with a Jarrett-like experimentation.  Another unexpected foray is the brief, swinging and forward-thinking “Activate,” where Lage’s modernistic bop notes don’t go where some might anticipate. The colliding, discordant ending may also surprise Lage fans, since it is much closer to Cline territory. The trio re-enter rock music terrain on the resounding “Prospero,” which combines Lage’s stinging guitar with Wolleson’s loudly rolling tom-toms, in the process creating something akin to late-1960s British blues-rock (but played via jazz instead of blues).

The rest of the CD (both covers and originals) has a mostly nostalgic, melancholy and orthodox mannerism. There’s 1930s-styled sprightliness to Gus Kahn and Charles Daniels’ “Persian Rug,” which has a pleasant romp and humorous pace. The album’s initial single and an unquestionable highlight is Lage’s interpretation of British composer Spike Hughes’ “Nocturne,” a poignant and melodic gem which is sure to become inserted into other artists’ repertoire, or deserves to be. Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” begins as a sensitive rendition, then skips into a faster tempo and wider-ranging improvisation, before shifting back to a gentle, melodic mode. Lage, Colley and Wollesen merge jazz and western swing on Handy’s optimistic and up-ticking “Harlem Blues,” which evokes likeminded efforts such as Herb Ellis’ 1992 album, Texas Swings. Lage concludes with the lengthiest piece, the 4:02 “Ryland,” a gorgeous blues ballad which echoes fellow guitarist Ry Cooder’s timbre, and is probably meant to be a tribute to the long-time guitarist whose multi-decade career has embraced several aspects of roots music, from Civil War songs to Mexican-American border music.

TrackList: Fortune Teller; Persian Rug; Nocturne; Supera; Stop Go Start; Activate; Presley; Prospero; I’ll Be Seeing You; Harlem Blues; Ryland.

—Doug Simpson

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