Blue Note Records B003332501
Jazz guitarist Julian Lage was only 15 when he made his first major recording, on vibraphonist Gary Burton’s Generations, in 2003. He contributed three tunes to the album, which was released the following year, and went on to make three more Burton albums. Lage has appeared on recordings by jazz composer John Zorn, trumpeter Dave Douglas, and many others—he was the guitarist on Charles Lloyd’s 8: Kindred Spirits (Live from the Lobero), released in 2020 to document the concert celebrating the saxophonist’s 80th birthday two years earlier. Lage has led or co-led more than a dozen sessions for various labels, but his latest album, Squint, is his debut for Blue Note Records.
Lage’s studies in classical music are evident in “Etude,” which kicks off Squint on a subdued but technically impressive note. Though playing an electric guitar, Lage’s technique on the baroque-style composition—his own—is reminiscent of that of Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia. Lage brings in the rest of his trio, drummer Dave King (of the Bad Plus) and bassist Jorge Roeder, for the buoyant “Boo’s Blues.” The composition and Lage’s playing are a nod to Kenny Burrell, but Lage shifts midway through the track into an edgier, slightly discordant series of melody lines that expand upon and deconstruct the song’s themes.
While Lage is best described as a jazz guitarist, his writing combines genres in unpredictable ways. The title track brings some rock’n’roll aggression to Lage’s jazz attack before settling into a fast-paced bop groove. King and Lage duet for a brief spell before Roeder joins them with a firm bass line that ties things together. Lage alternates fast, jagged melody lines with sliding chords that give way to an impressively springy feature from Roeder that leads into a spiky closing statement by the trio.
Lage brings sensitivity and nuance to the ballad “Emily,” a Johnny Mandel and Johnny Mercer composition that was the title song for the film The Americanization of Emily. His display of technique in the chord runs and melodic flights is impressive, but he never loses sight of the original themes of the composition. Lage’s own “Quiet Like a Fuse” shows his fine ability to write a ballad, and its calm beginning leads to an ever-more-complex unfolding of the tune as it develops.
Nine of the 11 songs on Squint are Lage’s, and reflect his wide interests as a writer and player. “Saint Rose” and “Day and Age” contain hints of rock and country, while “Twilight Surfer” pulls together country-blues fingerpicking and jazz—a nod, perhaps, toward Chet Atkins. However, Lage’s tunes never feel like pastiches, and his combinations of genres aren’t forced. He lets melody lead him, and it remains in the forefront during his improvisations.
The LP was expertly pressed by RTI, and my copy presented no background noise. When I checked the deadwax I saw Kevin Gray’s initials, and I assumed he had cut the lacquer from Ian Sefchick’s digital master. The sound was nicely detailed—cleanly presenting Lage’s chord patterns, and his individual notes during solos. Roeder’s bass sounded convincingly large, resonant, and natural, and the pressing conveyed both the power and subtlety of King’s drum work.
Squint is a trio recording, with no overdubs, but the music isn’t bare bones; the other two players are key to making the music cohesive. Lage shares solo time with both, but it’s the quick thinking and intuitive exchanges among all the musicians that give the music its excitement and variety. King is forceful and muscular when he needs to be, but exquisitely understated on the ballads. On bass, Roeder’s playing is often as melodic and engaging as Lage’s, but he doesn’t get in the guitarist’s way. His bass lines ground and enhance Lage’s playing.
Lage is a genre-defying guitarist who is expanding the vocabulary of jazz; uniquely, but all the while acknowledging the music’s history. At the tender age of 33, he already has an impressive list of recording credits. Squint should bring him to the wider audience he deserves.
. . . Joseph Taylor