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  • Carnegie Hall Presents
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A Modern Definition of a Jazz Guitarist

By Jeff Tamarkin

At age 27, Julian Lage already boasts a resume that an artist twice his age would be proud to claim. A former child prodigy—he was the subject of the 1997 documentary Jules at Eight—the California born, now New York–based guitarist has collaborated with such giants as Gary Burton, Jim Hall, David Grisman, Béla Fleck, and Charles Lloyd. He’s released three albums as a leader, most recently this year’s solo outing World’s Fair, and a few others in duo situations, including Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, pianist Fred Hersch, and Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge. Lage has also served as a sideman to many.

Despite all of the activity and attendant acclaim—one recent critics’ poll ranked Lage above certified jazz guitar legends Bill Frisell, John Scofield, and Pat Metheny—Lage manages to stay grounded. “Those people are my heroes and I try to keep all things in perspective,” he says. “In a lot of ways, now the work really begins. I’ve been doing a lot of plate-spinning over the last couple of years, and now my job is to keep them spinning. I want to build on a modern definition of what it means to be a jazz guitarist. It’s a really diverse discipline, but I feel like we’re in a beautiful stage for improvised music in general.”

“At the end of the day it comes down to throwing yourself at the music.”

With his new trio that features bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Lage is certainly positioned to help move the music forward. “I first saw Scott and Kenny with Jim Hall when I was 11,” he says, referring to the guitar great who died in 2013. “So to be able to form a band and make a record with them, and to debut it in New York at Carnegie Hall, represents a lot of positive stuff for me.”

Lage describes the trio’s forthcoming album, Holiday, as a “collection of originals and pre–bebop-era songs.” He looks forward to performing the music in a live setting, but more than anything, he’s simply excited about discovering what this trio is capable of doing. “There’s a willingness to jump in with these guys,” he says. “At the end of the day it comes down to throwing yourself at the music.”

Julian Lage b&w 300w

Setting anchor in New York, says Lage, has afforded him the freedom to pursue his music in multiple directions simultaneously. “There’s a camaraderie here and it takes the pressure off of you,” he says. “People here are open-minded, very forward-thinking. So even if you say, ‘Hey, I’m a jazz guitar player but I like to play country music too,’ they say, ‘Cool, go for it!’ I’ve always felt privileged to be able to do this, and I still feel that way.”

Jeff Tamarkin is the associate editor of JazzTimes magazine