Julian Lage - Arclight
Mack Avenue Records MAC1107. CD Review by Rob Mallows
At eight years old, acoustic guitar virtuoso Julian Lage was identified as a prodigy in the Oscar-nominated film Jules at Eight. That prodigious talent has not been wasted, judging by this album.
Like the Arclight of the title, this is jazz that glows with a simple intensity that throws light on what’s possible with six strings and an unlimited imagination. Released on 11 March, Arclight is Lage’s first release with the Mack Avenue label and also his debut electric guitar album. However, unlike Dylan’s decision to go electric, Lage’s selection of electric guitar - specifically, a Fender Telecaster, “the most refined embodiment of the modern guitar” as Lage puts its - seems a sensible choice for a guitarist looking for the next step in his development as an artist.
Conventionally based in a jazz trio format along with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenn Wollesen - something which Lage says fills a “recessive obsession” he has - this stripped down format nevertheless proves massively inventive. Eschewing his own compositions, Lage chooses to reinvent classics and forgotten tunes long since left on the musical shelf. In particular, he’s selected tunes from the pre be-bop era and freshened them up to show they still have value. Lage has certainly put his hand down the back of the 20th century’s jazz sofa to unearth a number of lost gems, such as Spike Hughes’ melancholy Nocturne, the third track on the album.
The search has proved productive. Stop Go Start begins with dreamy insouciance before Lage's scrabbling, scratchy sound challenges the melody. Totally atmospheric. Activate has a more conventional sound and rhythm structure which Lage uses as a platform to display fretboard pyrotechnics which are the match of any guitarist out there, and displays Metheny-like inventiveness. What becomes clear across this and the other tunes is how his acoustic experience plays out on this first album with electric guitar: his tremendous dexterity and the different pressures and inflexions on the strings create a wide pallets of tonal colours which elevates this above just being another jazz guitar album.
Presley has a bluesier feel, the title reflecting inspiration from Elvis’s back catalogue, and works well when it wanders into a metaphorical field of bluegrass. Prospero has a powerful kick to it, with Wollesen's drums rolling like the swell of an Atlantic sou’wester, his cymbals the waves crashing over each other, providing a turbulence over which Lage deploys some eye-wateringly complex chord progressions mixed in with seemingly middle-eastern melodic alongside the more conventional jazz sensibilities. Relentlessly inventive, Lage really does make it sound all so easy!
I’ll Be Seeing You, such a familiar standard, in Lage’s hands begins simply as he pays due deference to the original, but then he re-crafts it in a new direction with filigree touches on the strings buttressed by simple drumming from Wollesen, with gorgeously plump trills and rolls to fatten out the sound. Harlem Blues, another classic, has all the simplicity of W. C. Handy's original, with its rich, welcoming melody backed up by clapping. On this track Lage shows his capacity to make the simple sound anything but humdrum.
The album finishes on the moodiest and most languid of ballads in Ryland, with Lage alone with the six strings on his Telecaster, creating the most relaxing of introductions before his band drop in behind him almost apologetically, such is the starkness of the rhythm track. Beauty in simplicity is the watchword here and it is stunningly effective.
No chord seems beyond Lage, no cadence too oblique not to be used. Arclight shows Lage as a bright shining star in today’s jazz firmament. Well worth checking out.