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Julian Lage Flies With 'World's Fair'

Justin Camerer

There is a breed of musician who seeks out new music constantly and attempts to combine old musical elements in new ways. KMUW's Jedd Beaudoin recently spoke with one member of that breed and has more.

Credit Courtesy Photo

Earlier this year, guitarist Julian Lage released the latest in a long line of critically acclaimed albums with World’s Fair. The album finds him combining various elements of all the music he’s come to love, whether jazz, classical or doo-wop. Although some find this remarkable, Lage sees it as an extension of his personality, one that’s never been satisfied staying in one place too long.

“I grew up playing in duos and trios. The traditional formats of classical repertoire felt, maybe, too much to one end of the spectrum,” Lage recalls. “Then, there were certain folk elements of solo guitar that I really loved but I craved these other things that landed right in the middle. My goal was to create a hybrid of my favorite solo stuff.”

“Ryland,” which Lage composed on a Fender Telecaster is one of the key tracks on the album. The Telecaster dates back to the late 1940s and is perhaps most closely associated with country and western players. Telecasters marked a bold step forward in the evolution of the electric guitar. They were not hollow as most previous electrics were and allowed, at least theoretically, a longer sustain than a player might find on an acoustic instrument. Lage found that the Telecaster was closer to the acoustic guitar than he first imagined and that comparing compositions on both was a new way of deciding if material was performance worthy.

“In the same way that the Telecaster is a no-fills, just a plank of wood and strings. I feel that, similarly, an acoustic guitar is just a box, a chamber with some strings on it,” he says. “You have these really wonderful limitations. I enjoy going between the two almost to spot-check things. If it works on both, it’s probably strong.”

Lage is known for a wide range of dynamics in his pieces. Whereas some composers might begin or end a piece with a sense of high drama, Lage’s work tends to sidestep the obvious, allowing the listener to find the unexpected in melodies and rhythms.

“I suppose I get tired easily. I’ve tried pieces that start, more or less, gangbusters from the top and they serve their purpose,” he says. “They get kind of stimulating. You go, ‘Wow! This is cool!’ and then, after a minute or two, you think, ‘Well, I think I’ve had enough of this.’ Maybe it’s an attention span thing but I can’t sustain that intrigue. Compositionally speaking, a lot of times it’s about working backwards. You have this goal in mind of where you want to end up and then you say, ‘OK. What’s the distillation of that?’ If you have something that tells the story in eight notes, then you try to tell the story in four notes. If you can find it in two notes, you do that. If you can find it in one note against the chord then you do that. You just kind of unfold the piece accordingly.”

Lage has worked with a wide range of performers in his career, including with acclaimed pianist Fred Hersch on the album Free Flying. The collaboration began in a somewhat unusual way.

“It was kind of kismet," Lange says. "I met Fred in Boston, maybe four or five years ago at a Starbucks. I just kind of went up and said, ‘Are you Fred Hersch? Sorry to bother you.’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘I’d love to take a lesson with you.’”

Lage eventually took that lesson and the two began performing together on a somewhat regular basis.

“We’re pretty much at home in the live setting, so we made a live record,” he says.

Lage also teamed up last year to record Room with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, a player who has played in both jazz and rock but whose work is also well known in the avant-garde.

The two met through a mutual friendship with fellow guitarist Jim Hall. a man both Lage and Cline have taken some inspiration from.

“Nels is one of my heroes. As a person and a musician. I kind of had this image of him as a beacon of being adventurous as a guitar player. There're so many incredible guitarists who are incredible for different reasons, but Nels always had this spark,” Lage says. “In a lot of ways I felt like I had found my people when I started playing with Nels.”

Cline and Hersch are just two in a long line of players Lage has worked with. Already on faculty at Stanford by the age of 15, Lage has performed with jazz great Gary Burton, banjo master Bela Fleck and the always innovative mandolinist David Grisman. Each of those players, and their reluctance to obey arbitrary musical boundaries, has inspired Lage.

“Everyone I look up to was kind of reinventing their genre," he says. "You think about Grisman. Here’s a guy who could have just been the best bluegrass mandolin player but said, ‘No, I like these jazz chords. I like these Brazilian melodies and rhythms. He would put them together. Because he did it it became the norm. Bela was the same thing. Gary Burton was the same thing. I’m so grateful for those teachers.”

Julian Lage performs at Chamber Music At The Barn July 9, 10, 11.