Review: Julian Lage’s ‘Speak to Me’ Is a Deep and Multifaceted Album from the Young Master

Whether you’ve been out of the Lage loop or you’re simply Lage-curious, this album feels like the perfect vehicle to explore his talents as a player, collaborator, and composer.
Julian Lage
Julian Lage, Photo: Shervin Lainez

It hasn’t been easy keeping track of the still-young jazz giant Julian Lage the last five years. Prolific in the extreme, he has released trio albums featuring him on electric guitar along with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King (Love Hurts, 2019; Squint, 2021); a set of stunning acoustic duets with guitarist Gyan Riley playing Jewish folk–inspired pieces by John Zorn (The Book Beri’ah Vol. 4—Chesed, 2019); the trio (with Lage again on electric) augmented on a handful of compositions by guitarist Bill Frisell (View with a Room, 2022); an EP addendum to that project that includes a couple of tracks of Frisell and Lage playing acoustic (The Layers, 2023); and a masterful acoustic trio date with reeds legend Charles Lloyd and Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain (Lloyd’s Trio of Trios, 2022). 

Julian-Lage-Speak-To-Me album cover
Julian Lage, Speak to Me (Blue Note Records)

Whether you’ve been out of the Lage loop or you’re simply Lage-curious, his latest album, Speak to Me, feels like the perfect vehicle to explore his seemingly boundless talents as a player, collaborator, and composer. The 13-track, one-hour set covers an amazingly broad range of styles and different instrumental configurations, including solo acoustic; the trio with Roeder, King, and Lage playing either electric or acoustic (and both on one composition); and several pieces where the sound is further filled out with contributions from Levon Henry on saxophone or clarinet, Patrick Warren on various keyboards, and Kris Davis on piano. 


The brilliant musician/producer Joe Henry (Solomon Burke, Aimee Mann, Allen Toussaint, Bonnie Raitt, Rhiannon Giddens) helmed the sessions at Brooklyn Recording (engineered by Mark Goodall) and expertly captured every nuance of the undeniable chemistry of the different groupings. Lage wrote the entire album—the bones of the tunes—but it is the combined improvisational wizardry of the players, listening to each other and reacting, following the collective muse, that makes this set so compelling and exceptional. 

“Speak To Me”

You never quite know where a piece is headed—the beginning rarely seems to foretell the middle or the end—or how the musicians are going to interact with each other, or who will suddenly come to the forefront and dominate, if only briefly. Naturally, Lage’s guitar is the most prominent voice, and his playing, as always, is as technically faultless as it is imaginative, moving easily from fleet-fingered flights to beautiful ballad spaces to jazzy/bluesy grooves to unpredictable discordance. 


But all of the players get their chances to stand in the spotlight, and the album is also laced with subtle instrumental touches that don’t necessarily command attention but add so much color and texture—a background organ wash, the resonant rumble of a low alto clarinet, a brushed snare, atmospheric Wurlitzer, vibraphone, or keyboard strings. There’s a lot going on within these pieces, with many containing surprising tempo and rhythm changes and textural shifts, but they never feel cluttered; there’s always room to breathe. There are delicately etched melodies (“Hymnal,” “Serenade,” “Myself Around You”), chugging rhythmic workouts (“Northern Shuffle,” “Speak to Me,” “76,” “Two and One”), catchy tunes (“Omission,” “Tiburon,” “Nothing Happens Here”), a dollop of old-fashioned folk (part of “South Mountain”), and even one that sounds like it could have been a jazz standard in the ’40s (“As It Were”).

“Nothing Happens Here”

Lage plays acoustic guitar on nine of the tunes: his sparkling signature Collings OM1A JL on six and a wonderfully warm 1930s Gibson L-0 on three. And his clean, mostly distortion-free electric lines come courtesy of a Nachocaster (guitar maker Nacho Baños’ contemporary version of a vintage Fender Telecaster) and on one, a 1960s Epiphone Coronet.

Every time I’ve listened to Speak to Me it has revealed new things and a new favorite track has emerged. That’s high praise, richly deserved. Don’t let this album pass you by!

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 347

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Blair Jackson
Blair Jackson

Blair Jackson is the author of the definitive biography Garcia: An American Life and was senior editor at Acoustic Guitar before retiring in 2023.

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