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Guitarist Julian Lage’s Road From Child Prodigy to Seasoned Pro

“I basically pursued anything that I was sure I would suck at,” explains consummately versatile six-stringer

WHO: Julian Lage released his debut album, Sounding Point, in 2009, when he was just 21 years old. By then, however, the New York City–via–Santa Rosa, California, guitarist had already lived multiple musical lives. A child prodigy, Lage was the subject, at the tender age of eight, of an Oscar-nominated documentary short, aptly titled “Jules at Eight.” The next year, Carlos Santana invited him onstage in California to trade licks on the Funkadelic acid-rock instrumental “Maggot Brain.” By 11, Lage was in the studio with progressive bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman; at 12, he was onstage at the Grammys; and by the end of his teens, he had performed with virtuoso musicians like banjoist Béla Fleck, acoustic flatpicking great Doc Watson and jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton. “I remember very vividly being a kid and people saying, ‘You’re so good for being such a young age,'” Lage recalls. “I’d say, ‘Thank you,’ but in my head I’d be thinking, I want to be good for any age. That was always my goal.”

GIANT STEPS: Though he’s thought of primarily as a jazz man, Lage spent his childhood immersed in everything from blues (his first love) and folk to country and classical. For a brief period, he even studied Indian music at the Ali Akbar College in San Raphael. “I basically pursued anything that I was sure I would suck at,” he explains. That boundless musical curiosity laid the foundation for an approach that is remarkably expansive and fluent, with Lage capable of negotiating almost any style of music with seeming ease. “I’ve always had that ‘United Nations’ attitude, which sounds like a corny thing to say,” Lage says. “But I felt it was my job to check out everything that I knew was important and to make sure I was thorough about it. And a big part of being thorough is being really clear about what you don’t know — being able to say, ‘This is not something I expect to master, but I want to know enough to be able to interact with those people who have mastered it.’ That was my modus operandi as a young person. It kinda still is.”

GUITAR SOLO: Lage has spent much of his career playing in duo, trio and group configurations. But his most recent effort, 2015’s World’s Fair, was his first to be recorded entirely solo. “It was just one acoustic guitar with no overdubs — very bare-bones,” he says. His two primary inspirations for the record were, he says, early 20th-century Paraguayan guitarist Agustín Barrios (for, among other things, “the way his compositions utilized the high, middle and low range of the guitar”), and also Spanish classical-guitar master Andrés Segovia. “To me, he kind of embodies the ultimate badass concert-guitar player,” Lage says of Segovia. “In a lot of ways, he legitimized the guitar as a concert instrument, as something worthy of concertos and of being included in this great pantheon of violin, piano and cello virtuosos. So when I was making World’s Fair, I wanted to pursue Segovia’s aesthetic. I considered it a very clear path.”

OUTSIDER ART: In addition to his own albums, Lage has recorded numerous and varied collaborative efforts. In 2014, he and singer-guitarist Chris Eldridge, of progressive bluegrass act Punch Brothers, cut Avalon, a record of modern acoustic string music. Just a few months later, Lage paired up with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline to produce Room, a collection of largely improvised songs that venture into avant-garde and free-jazz territory. “It’s a very specific aesthetic of free jazz, one that’s sort of chamberesque, and that sounds written — even when it’s not,” Lage says of Room. “Nels and I went into a studio in New York with little pieces that were just enough of a song — maybe a few measures, maybe a phrase, maybe even just a direction, like, ‘Okay, here’s the rhythm. You go up, I go down, and then we play free.’ And then there are also some songs on the record that are deliberate free improvisations, with no direction at all. It was, ‘Just play.'”

NEW BEGINNINGS: Lage’s fourth album under his own name, scheduled for release in early 2016, will represent another first for the guitarist. “It’s called Arclight,” he says, “and it focuses on my love for the electric guitar, specifically the [Fender] Telecaster. And even more specifically, it’s centered around a jazz trio. It’s basically a realization of this recessive obsession I’ve had for a long time, but have never followed.” The music, Lage says, runs the gamut from covers of early-20th-century standards to originals inspired by 1970s-era jazz-rock, “where there’s really anthemic melodies and that kind of unbridled ‘just overdrive your amp and play your guitar loud’ thing. So I’m thrilled to share it. For me, the record feels like Chapter 1 again. And, God willing, there will be more chapters to come.”

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