On a Wednesday evening a couple of years ago, Julian Lage sat onstage at the Hotel Cafe, a venue in Hollywood, with a 1939 Martin 000-18 on his lap. Lage was performing compositions from his solo guitar album World’s Fair, and it was exciting to witness this young virtuoso—with his expansive musical vocabulary and fecund imagination, his contrapuntal feats and his faultless technique—achieving an extreme range of expression from a modest old guitar.
The audience, a hip-looking bunch, appeared riveted. After the show, Lage emerged in the venue’s lobby while a throng of well-wishers waited for their opportunity to interact with him—the sort of reception more commonly given to rock stars than jazz musicians. But it wasn’t exactly surprising, considering Lage’s ascendance as the thinking-person’s guitar hero.
Lage, now 30, has long since shed his child prodigy status—on display in the 1996 documentary film Jules at Eight—to become one of the great jazz guitarists, if not one of the most brilliant plectrists in general. Matt Munisteri, the singer-songwriter and guitarist who produced World’s Fair, told me, “I first met Julian around ten years ago when we were doing a bunch of dates with Mark O’Connor, the fiddle player. Jules was already as plugged in to mainstream jazz as he was to the acoustic world, free improvisation, and classical composition. I’d never heard anyone get such a big, loud, beautiful sound from the acoustic guitar. After I met him, I ran into [jazz guitarist] Frank Vignola, and he said, ‘Who is this kid Julian Lage?’ I said, ‘I’ve got to tell you man, he’s the guy who’s going to show the 21st century what’s possible on the instrument.”
Lage was in the Bay Area last December to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he is on faculty, and I met him one morning for breakfast at a restaurant near the school. Tall and wiry, he was dressed smartly in a dark Patagonia sweater, olive-green chinos, and white retro Adidas sneakers. In person, he is disarmingly warm and pleasant and comes across as a total mensch.
Lage talks a lot like he plays guitar. He’s thoughtful and articulate, and expresses himself in long, elegant paragraphs; he seems present but also in tune with everything that is going on around him. As we waited on breakfast burritos, “The Way It Goes” by Gillian Welch began playing unobtrusively on the restaurant’s speakers. Lage, who at that moment was reflecting on his musical rhetoric, suddenly changed course and said, with more than a little enthusiasm, “That’s from [Welch’s] Harrow & the Harvest, one of my all-time favorite records, which was engineered by Matt Andrews, who’s the greatest. Critter [guitarist Chris Eldridge] and I hired him to engineer [their recent duo album] Mount Royal because we thought that record’s sound was our ideal blueprint. Matt did an amazing job, but we didn’t do as well, and so we had to re-record it”— less likely owing to the quality of the guitarists’ playing than to their high standards.
Without skipping a beat, Lage then continued to talk about his musical identity. Though he’s celebrated as a jazz guitarist, the label is not entirely accurate. “I actually think of myself as a blues guitarist,” he said. “The blues is at my core. It was the music my parents listened to; blues, R&B, and soul were what we all agreed on.
“But it really has to do less with content than the orientation of the guitar within a context. I grew up hearing the guitar as a very sensual instrument—as a voice you could receive in the same way you would a blues singer or a folk singer. It could be B.B. King using vibrato on a note, or it might be Stevie Ray Vaughan generating this incredible motor of energy and excitement. These things taught me that the guitar can be both powerful and tender, edgy or really chill and laid back.”
‘I actually think of myself as a blues guitarist. The blues is at my core. It was the music my parents listened to; blues, R&B, and soul were what we all agreed on.’
Lage came to jazz less through an infatuation with bebop than as a means of understanding the mechanics of music and how they translate to the fretboard. “It’s not like I was drawn to this romantic notion of the jazz musician in the dark club with the cigarette smoke,” he said. “I just wanted to get better, and so I needed to have a deep understanding of how scales and chords work. My teacher at the time, Randy Vincent, this Bay Area guru, said, ‘Well, you’ve gotta learn jazz songs.’”
To be sure, jazz—its harmonic and rhythmic language and its premium on improvisation—is Lage’s operating system regardless of context. The spirit of jazz can be heard in all of his work, a recent cross section of which includes the solo guitar album World’s Fair; wide-ranging duets with guitarists Nels Cline (Room), Chris Eldridge (Mount Royal), and Gyan Riley (Midsummer Moons: Music by John Zorn); the American Acoustic tour of roots musicians; and his own electric-guitar trio (Arclight and Modern Lore).
“I kind of play the same thing, to my sensibilities, acoustic or electric, with these different people. All that shifts is the room,” Lage said with a glow. “At the end of the day, I feel like it’s all about studies in relationships. For me, it starts with the people I connect with on a personal level, and if they play a certain kind of music that I don’t, then I pour myself into it.”
Eldridge, Lage’s duo partner since the two met at a concert at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts ten years ago, agrees with this idea and considers Lage one of his closest friends. And he says his own relationship to his genre of origin, bluegrass, has been transformed as a result of their collaboration. “Bluegrass, especially in its modern form, can be kind of empirical. A thing about Julian is that he’s anything but empirical. He celebrates humanity. Though he obviously plays at the highest level, with technical perfection, he doesn’t shy away from mistakes—if a surprise note comes out, he has no problem with it. His influence has definitely made me a freer player,” Eldridge told me.
Lage’s evolved sensibilities were fostered by a lucky set of circumstances, at home and within the community, in his formative years. He grew up not far from San Francisco, in Santa Rosa, and started on a full-sized guitar when he was five years old. Lage’s father, Mario Lage, had played guitar as a teenager, and hearing Eric Clapton’s 1992 MTV Unplugged album inspired him to reconnect with the instrument. The elder Lage brought home an acoustic guitar, and he and his young son began learning together.
“I think of my father as the greatest guitar coach there ever was. He has such an in-depth understanding of the instrument—what makes great players great—and he had a really eloquent way of breaking things down so a kid could understand. He would come to lessons with me and was kind of a translator. A teacher would say, ‘When you take this idea and you extrapolate it, you get this.’ My father would explain, ‘Extrapolate means to…’ He was so sweet with me,” Lage said, adding that his mother, Susan Lage, equally sweet, nurtured his spiritual side with Buddhist input.
Lage is the youngest of five children, and growing up in a house that at its fullest included this clan, plus his maternal grandparents and two dogs and two cats, he felt free to hunker down with his guitar for hours at a time. He says he was encouraged from a young age to find great joy in the work: “There was this outlook in my family that if you’re not getting rejuvenated by the energy you put into work—and if it doesn’t feel enjoyable—then you’re not following the right path.”
A flexible educational arrangement further bolstered Lage’s musical life—he was able to go to school three days a week and spend the other two immersed in music. He also had access to a vibrant community of master musicians, including the bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman, with whom he made his recording debut at age 11 (on the album Dawg Duos), and the Latin-rock guitarist Carlos Santana. Lage, who at age seven shared the stage with Santana, said, “One time, a friend of my father’s said I should meet Carlos Santana. We just drove ourselves without tickets to the amphitheater where he was playing and rolled up backstage around sound check time with a guitar. We said, ‘We’re looking for Santana,’ and the staff led us to his room. Then we walked in and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve heard about you—please sit down.’ There’s no way, in this post-9/11 world, that that would happen today.”
At the 2000 Grammy Awards telecast, Lage, then 12 and appearing barely big enough to manage his Manzer archtop, played Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” with a small ensemble of other prodigious young musicians. The jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton, fascinated by Lage’s 12-bar solo, enlisted the guitarist, first for performances and then recordings, starting with Burton’s 2004 album Generations. Despite this exposure, Lage was able to sharpen his musicality largely unwatched—and therefore organically.
“Those were pre-YouTube times, and even when I was out playing with Gary, I was kind of a secret. Nowadays I feel like it’s very hard to be anonymous, because if you show any kind of propensity for something, it’s almost as if you don’t have a choice; people decide that the world needs to know about you. But back then I could work without that weight, and it was not unusual that I waited until I was in my early 20s to record my first record,” Lage said, referring to his debut album, 2009’s Sounding Point, which was nominated for the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.
Musical education has always been important to Lage, who received classical training at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, studied tabla at the Ali Akbar College of Music, and jazz at Sonoma State University and the Berklee College of Music. He’s both a lifelong student and a longtime teacher, having earned faculty status at Stanford University’s jazz workshop when he was 15.
As we finished breakfast it was nearing time for Lage to begin his day at the conservatory. More than 20 years ago, when he took his first theory class there, the school didn’t offer anything in the way of jazz pedagogy, but it now has a range of courses. Lage teaches in the new Roots, Jazz, and American program, which takes a comprehensive view of jazz and its offshoots.
I was going to join Lage to observe his class, and he suggested we first grab a coffee. He led us past rows of upscale boutiques to an outdoor café a few blocks from the restaurant, and after we had received our drinks, we found chairs. It was a bright day in San Francisco, and Lage made sure my seat wasn’t directly facing the sun. As he carefully set down a gig bag containing his vintage Fender Telecaster, I told him that he sounded the same whether playing the Tele or an acoustic guitar.
“It’s true that they appear different—and I know that you’ll hear twang on one and the other will sound kind of lush,” Lage said. “But I’m glad that you said that, because I hear the same thing in my favorite players. Bill Frisell’s a great example. Have you ever heard Frisell not sound like himself?”
Lage is as exacting about guitars as he is music. About ten years ago, he started researching an instrument that would be ideal for playing unamplified in an ensemble context and this led him to a 1932 Gibson L-5. “I found it, I played it, and I loved it. It worked just as it needed to, and I used it as a cannon,” he said. “That reminds me—it’s been in storage, and I really need to loosen its strings when I get back home.”
The L-5 might be the prototypical jazz guitar, but around four years ago, after Lage developed a hand injury from years of playing with an aggressive technique, he began looking for an acoustic guitar that would respond agreeably to a gentler approach. He also wanted another vintage instrument. When he visited Retrofret, a museum-like shop in Brooklyn, New York, only one Martin in the store’s fleet of prewar examples was within his budget. Lage said, “It was a 1939 000-18 that had been there for a while, probably because of its many repairs. The previous owner had bought it in a garbage bag from Mandolin Brothers—the neck was literally ripped off; the body had holes in it—and [repair guru] TJ Thompson brought it back to life. So it’s got a great story; I really love it and don’t have to be too precious with it.”
Several years ago, Mark Althans, artist relations manager at Collings Guitars and a formidable guitarist and composer himself, cold-called Lage and sent him a Waterloo WL-14 for feedback. Blown away by the guitar’s lightness and responsiveness and its old-school vibe, Lage decided to order a Collings OM with a similar build. “I knew it wasn’t going to be a regular order—which is to say we wouldn’t just make him a guitar, ship it out, and then be done with it,” Althans told me.
‘I grew up hearing the guitar as a very sensual instrument—as a voice you could receive in the same way you would a blues singer or a folk singer.’
At Althans’ invitation, Lage began making regular visits to Collings’ Austin, Texas, shop to play and analyze prewar flattops with the staff—research-and-design sessions that co- incided with the development of the company’s Traditional Series guitars. In the process, Bill Collings, sensing a kindred spirit in Lage, personally saw to it that he received the guitar he wanted. “There was a real urgency to his curiosity,” Lage said. “He just couldn’t rest until we had solved the problem of making a guitar together—a guitar that’s not perfect, but that feels passionate and soulful and which challenges me. If I don’t sound good, I don’t want it to be the guitar’s fault.”
Part of the challenge was that Lage found stock Collings guitars, with their lush voices and superb craftsmanship, to be impossibly excellent—at least for his purposes. He was searching for something less obvious. “I was in Austin playing with Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids and we went to the shop. Bill brought out this guitar and said, ‘What do you guys think?’ I said, ‘I don’t know quite how to explain it, but it seems like there are too many overtones; it’s getting cloudy. Kenneth was kind of quiet. While I was playing the guitar, he just reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and placed it on the top of the guitar [thereby attenuating the sound]. There it was—the sound I was going for.”
It took years of deep conversations, with Lage and the Austin team learning to translate the language of music into wood thicknesses, for Collings to arrive at an instrument that approached Lage’s vision. “All it needed was a little tweaking of its neck profile and a different finish,” Althans said. “We were so close, and it seemed only right, with all the work we’d done with Julian, to create a signature model. When I approached him with the idea, he was gracious, but said he’d have to think about it.”
Lage ultimately agreed to a namesake guitar, and the OM1 JL, with a subdued finish and a neck profile inspired by his old Martin, is now his main acoustic. “I spoke to Bill every few months, and he called not long ago to tell me how happy he was that we’d made the guitar—this was more than a two-year process. I said, ‘Bill, I could not be more proud and honored to play your guitar.’ And that was the last time we talked,” Lage said, with a hint of sadness, as Collings had died last July.
As we stood to head over to the conservatory, a man who appeared to be under the influence of a stimulant more powerful than coffee approached Lage to ask an inscrutable question about music-copyright laws. Lage politely said that he didn’t know the answer, and as we walked away, the man shouted “La Grange!”—presumably a reference to the ZZ Top song. Lage said, ‘Oh man, I love Billy Gibbons,’” the band’s leader and guitarist.
Soon after that, in a room on the fifth floor of the conservatory, a small jazz combo—tenor saxophone, piano, upright bass, and drums—was assembled, its members youthful and attentive. Lage was co-teaching the group with the pianist Edward Simon, who gave a brief lecture on the importance of gratitude, it being the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. The class was working on the repertoire of the trumpet great Clifford Brown, and lead sheets for “I’ll Remember April” were displayed on their music stands.
Lage listened intently, his guitar resting on a chair next to him, as the students worked through the tune. The pianist played an effusion of interesting ideas, but his fingers couldn’t keep up with his imagination and he lagged behind the rest of the ensemble. When the music ended, Lage gave some encouraging words, then said, “This might sound harsh” and in a way that was not at all harsh pointed out the rhythmic deficiencies that he had observed.
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Lage prescribed an exercise for the pianist—to walk his improvised melodies; that is, to play them in straight quarter notes, like an upright bassist—while his cohorts accompanied him. At first the pianist had difficulty following these restrictions and broke into eighth notes. But after Lage had him try again, the pianist stuck with the quarter notes and locked in tightly with the bassist and drummer. The pianist smiled broadly at his accomplishment, and so did Lage.
What Julian Lage Plays
In terms of acoustic guitars, Julian plays a 1939 Martin 000-18, a 1932 Gibson L-5, and a Collings OM1 JL signature model. He uses D’Addario NB1253 Nickel Bronze strings (.012–.053) and BlueChip TP50 picks.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.