Julian Lage exults in twangy guitar virtuosity and grooves that shine
Julian Lage’s career has been marked by a series of firsts, including the fact he is the only jazz guitar virtuoso who counts Yoko Ono, Bill Cosby, Wilco’s Nels Cline, cutting-edge composer John Zorn and former Bonsall classical and bluegrass violin star Mark O’Connor among his past musical collaborators.
Lage’s first first, so to speak, took place in 1996, when he became the subject of the Oscar-nominated short film, “Jules at Eight.”
At 9, he performed on stage with Carlos Santana on a version of Funkadelic’s acid-rock classic, “Maggot Brain.” When he was 11, Lage recorded an album of duets with “dawg music” mandolin master David Grisman. At 12, he made his concert debut with jazz vibraphone legend Gary Burton.
“I saw Julian on a TV show when he was only 12. Within 30 seconds, I could tell this guy had a natural talent,” Burton said in a 2011 Union-Tribune interview. “I got in touch with him and his parents, and — by the time he was 15 or 16 — he was recording with me.”
Lage is 30 now and on tour in support of his sixth and newest solo album, “Modern Lore,” which came out in January.
A fusion of Americana, jazz and vintage rock, “Modern Lore” has a similar tone to some of fellow guitarist Bill Frisell’s albums. It teams Lage with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen, the same rhythm section featured on his acclaimed 2016 album, “Arclight.”
It is also Lage’s second consecutive release on which he performs exclusively on a Fender Telecaster. That instrument is more commonly associated with such rock, blues and country guitar legends as Prince, Keith Richards, Muddy Waters and James Burton than with any jazz artists.
“When I was a kid and first started on guitar, my dad played a Tele. So that’s why it was cool to me — my dad played it!” recalled Lage, who performs Wednesday at the Music Box with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Eric Doob.
“A Telecaster is like guitar, in that it’s a tool and it implies a language of (six-string electric) instruments. But, the way I play a Telecaster, it has a lot of similar vocabulary that I have on acoustic guitar; it just sounds different.”
You can count the number of leading jazz guitarists who have favored a Telecaster on one hand, without using all your fingers.
Lage cites country-swing giant Jimmy Bryant as one of his enduring early influences on the Telecaster. Bryant’s seminal work with pedal-steel guitar wiz Speedy West set an enduring standard.
“Jimmy was probably the most palatable person I heard when I was young, in terms of: ‘Oh, I can picture myself playing that and getting that sound’,” Lage said. “And that sound was reminiscent to me of (jazz guitar godfather) Charlie Christian and early George Barnes. Leo Fender was a genius!”
Lage was only three in 1990 when the New York dance-pop trio Dee-Lite had a hit song called “Groove is in the Heart.” Its title almost serves as a mantra of sorts for Lage’s new “Modern Lore” album, which uses backbeats and draws from early rock influences as well as jazz and folk.
“The way Ken and Scott play together and render grooves, specifically a certain kind of tempo and backbeat feel, makes me think: ‘Wow, I’d like to write more songs where the melody shines, but also the groove’.”
Lage has headlined several times at The Loft at UC San Diego. He has also performed at the Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI concert series with vibraphonist Burton’s quartet and with fellow guitarist Anthony Wilson.
Did Lage learn any enduring lessons about how to be a band leader from Burton?
“Absolutely!” he replied, speaking from a recent concert stop at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where he was performing in drummer Kendrick Scott’s band, Oracle.
“Gary is such a professional band leader, in terms of the consistency factor and how he treats his band, his audience and (concert) promoters. And, also, in how to sustain excitement and not get stale.
“He has a way of making everyone their best. He charges the air with encouragement and excitement. And if you’re struggling, he accompanies you in a way that makes you sound better, which is in the best interest of everyone. Gary can do that, without fail, every night. It makes you want to do that for others.”
Julian Lage Trio
When: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Music Box, 1337 India Street, downtown
Tickets: $28-$47.98, plus service charges
Phone: (619) 795-1337
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.