November 5, 2018
Released On March 11, 2016
Released By Mack Avenue Records
There’s a cliché that haunts me, though I’ve grown as accustomed to its persistence in my psyche as I have the eventuality of death: “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
I’m the son of two former college professors, and I’m the brother of a current Wisconsinite professor who bravely stares down Governor Scott Walker’s draconian budget cuts on a yearly basis. They are my heroes, and I wouldn’t be who I am without their having ventured into the world of advanced degrees, even though I never managed to follow them there. I often wonder if I’ll ever know as much about anything as they know about the courses they’ve taught.
The “Jack of all trades” specter pops up often in musical contexts, and it hits especially hard when I’m playing a gig and someone asks about my gear. As much as I worship guitar gods and their axes, I tend to be pretty cheap when it comes to my own equipment. Instead of saving up and assembling a decent rig, I’ve cobbled together a makeshift ethos built upon a combination of frugality and faux integrity, conflating ownership of crappy gear with a focus on songcraft. Substance over style. “It’s all about the songs, man.”
This is total bullshit, of course, and it’s bullshit for more than one reason. First, you don’t have to choose between substance and style. Those ideas are not mutually exclusive. Second, instruments are more than just stylish; they’re tools, and the quality of one’s tools affects the quality of what those tools create, especially if the process of creation is exacting. And third, instruments themselves can be profoundly inspiring. Just ask jazz guitarist Julian Lage.
Lage congregates at the church of the Telecaster — the iconic Fender product that you could reasonably call the official guitar of country music. For a long time, I thought of the Tele as the twangier cousin of Fender’s Stratocaster, but the Telecaster actually came first; it was the world’s first broadly marketed solid-body electric guitar. And while it’s true that both guitars are fairly versatile, the Tele’s sound is arguably more distinctive. It does exceptional things at the high-frequency end of the audio spectrum. It cuts through other sounds in a live or studio mix like a bell announcing the completion of a blue plate special in a crowded diner. So why did that sound come to shape — even signify — country music? Some point to how the Telecaster could be heard amid Western swing arrangements, others to the influential leads Luther Perkins of the Tennessee Two contributed to early hits by Johnny Cash. (I’d also cite as a factor country’s close connectedness to bluegrass — a genre that’s fueled by high-energy, high-frequency theatrics.)
We’re gathered here today to talk about jazz, not country, but I’d argue that Arclight makes a pretty convincing case for the Tele’s universal utility — not just in jazz, but anywhere musical ideas need to be communicated with precision.
I had a hard time getting into jazz that foregrounds the guitar. As someone who plays the instrument but is light on understanding of theory, it felt overwhelming, like stepping up to the plate in little league and having a New York Yankee zing fastballs by you. Wes Montgomery changed that. His use of octaves helped me learn how to process melody one thick, buttery note at a time. It was my cleanest, clearest line of sight yet into a world I’d had trouble accessing.
Julian Lage gets at that idea of clarity from a different angle. If Montgomery’s work with a Gibson L-5 was like drawing clean, decisive lines with a Sharpie on blank white paper, Lage’s playing on Arclight is like drawing a mural-sized cityscape with a fine-point pen. There’s so much detail. Taking full advantage of the Tele sound’s crispness, Lage leads Scott Colley’s bass and Kenny Wollesen’s drums and vibes with a strong melodic voice and complex chords, drifting fluidly between the two and flashing brilliance in both ways. I love the chords he uses to make the turn just after opening track “Fortune Teller” passes the one-minute mark. There’s such warmth in that passage — like the feeling of comfort you get when you greet a dear friend. And I love the ascending lead notes just after the two-minute mark in “Nocturne.” He’s running out of time before the theme restarts, but he manages to squeeze in a few extra notes before hitting the tonic. I think about that moment all the time — how generous he is there. Could Lage have played the song well on a Les Paul or a Paul Reed Smith? Sure. But when you’re inspired, you’ll sneak those extra notes in.
Moments like these are a big part of why I keep coming back to Arclight, as is Lage’s otherworldly sense of touch. Be sure to give closing track “Ryland” a spin. From single notes played so lightly they’re barely even there to chords that jangle to the point distortion, he gives you a comprehensive tour of his instrument’s capabilities. In that sense, Arclight reminds me of a conversation with someone who is powerfully knowledgeable and never misses an opportunity to inject an aside that adds context. It’s a chat in the hallway after class with a professor who dearly loves the subject he teaches. It’s mastery in motion.
I will probably never achieve that kind of mastery. I am on the lookout for a good Tele, however. In an interview with Fretboard Journal, Lage described owning a 1954 Blackguard — “Blackguard” denoting a range of early Telecaster model years that are especially sought-after. Anyone have $45,000 I could borrow?
A few notes on additional listening: If you dig Arclight, I guarantee you’ll enjoy Modern Lore, the album Lage released this year. Same cast of characters, same sense of mastery. Well worth a listen. If you’re interested in the intersection of jazz and country, start with Chet Atkins, then check out Hank Garland’s Jazz Winds From A New Direction album. I recently snagged a copy from my dad’s record collection, and it’s excellent. I don’t think he uses Telecasters, but whatever. And no conversation about mastering the Tele would be complete without mentioning the Humbler aka the Telemaster aka Washington D.C.’s own Danny Gatton. I have a copy of Redneck Jazz, and it’s dynamite, but “Blues Newburg” is a must-listen. Your head might explode, but it’ll be worth it. I promise.
Jazz reveries channeled through the familiar tone of the Telecaster & the expansive mind of Julian Lage.
My experience with instrumental albums from talented guitarists tends to all be metal-related. Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani… I know all those guys. When “Fortune Teller” started off this album, I found myself thinking of Eric Johnson, in my humble opinion the best of all those metal-adjacent electric-guitar hotshots. I soon realized, though, that Julian Lage is coming from a completely different place, musically speaking. And that place is jazz. Track two, “Persian Rug,” makes this abundantly clear with an old-school swing-jazz tune that is almost western in feel (and with a co-writing credit to Charlie Daniels, that makes a lot of sense). From there, Lage and his trio move in a variety of directions, from the wide-open atmospherics of “Stop Go Start,” which feels like it’d be right at home on a noir film soundtrack, to “Activate,” which almost sounds like a Jimi Hendrix Experience instrumental — only if Hendrix had been fundamentally grounded in jazz instead of blues. This entire album is a treat for a jazz fan, especially one who feels like no one in the genre has done anything interesting with the instrument since Wes Montgomery’s heyday (and yeah, that tends to be how I feel, if I’m honest). I wasn’t expecting anything like this to come into my life, and I didn’t really realize anyone made albums like this anymore. But I sure am glad it was brought to my attention, because this is one that’ll stay in the rotation for the foreseeable future. It should be in yours too.
This was one of those rare weeks where the name of the artist at hand jumped off the page at me and elicited instant excitement from sheer love and familiarity with the music. The funny aspect of this contextual introduction, is that Lage was actually first introduced to me while surrounded by a breath of accomplished folk and bluegrass artists together on tour: the esteemed Punch Brothers and the at-the-time quickly blazing supergroup, I’m With Her — not a stage full of jazz vets or with the tools of typical jazz trio trade. How odd of a thing it was to hear Lage’s musicianship in that order but regardless of which were to come first, the conclusion of his aptitude with the guitar, insight with the structures old and new of jazz writing, and his joyful-to-follow style of melodic hooks, were appealing no matter with whom he shared a microphone or amp. Arclight is a rather new record; falling close to but not yet three years old. However, it’s a great starter listen for those unfamiliar with Lage’s catalog or those looking for something “jazzy that isn’t too formally jazz sounding.” The genre intention is all there from the very first bent guitar notes, brushed snare pattern, and unassuming but vital bass plucks. However, also right from the start, even those with just a rudimentary expectation of what to find on a jazz trio album — guitar, bass, and drums — will notice the strikingly unconventional tone of an electric guitar forming the melody at the forefront on “Fortune Teller” and then further, the softer-edged but assertive-capable tone of a Telecaster. This choice was Lage’s way of shaking up tradition and the sometimes rigid rules of what makes the foundation of a jazz-oriented project. What’s worth noting is that, beyond the difference in tonal flavor, the literal notes, chord changes, and seamless part layering between Lage, bassist Scott Colley, and percussionist (drums, vibraphone) Kenny Wollensen, all provide plenty of fundamental jazz structure. Where the modern and the conventional diverge is not in Arclight‘s musical flow or compositional character. Arclight serves as a successful demonstration of potential for an instrument outside the age-old jazz canon. Though some of the selections are more blues at heart than straight jazz (“Harlem Blues,” “I’ll Be Seeing You“), and the second track, “Persian Rug,” even gives the album a bit of country-tinted agility that sounds like it could easily be picked out on a banjo or mandolin — not surprising once it’s shown that “Persian Rug” was co-written by the king of upbeat country melodies, Charlie Daniels — the core of Arclight‘s melodies never takes so drastic of a turn that any song would evoke the thought that it doesn’t sound like it belongs. The Telecaster’s tone gives the album a sense of sonic ease over punctuating declaration, but Lage’s attention to detail with harmonic blending and aspiration for more melodic complexity over less still leads to a great blend of calm and stimulating jazz. If Arclight were a recipe, the ingredients used — ranging from the time periods of the songs covered, to the sound of the instruments, interpretation of the music, and inspiration of originals written — would reveal a collage of things constantly debated within jazz circles everywhere: what’s old, new, smooth, sharp, approachable, and challenging. Each descriptive facet comes through on Arclight but the real spectacle about such an assortment of qualities is that Lage lets them be distinctly noticed while also managing to have these characteristics come together in one place and sound like they naturally get along. It’s a record that pays homage to many aspects of jazz without sounding the way a collage often looks.
With slashed orange and black signs hanging above buggies filled with the remnants of Tootsie Rolls and fondant pumpkins, those ridiculous candies that only spendthrifts like, workers in big box stores are making way for new merch. Red boxes of glittered ribbon rolls are filling end caps while themed velvet and twine wreaths and ornaments cluster in this year’s non-holiday colors (looks like winter white, pink, and gold this year). I’m talking about the trigger-happy Christmas invasion, of course. How apropos, then, to be listening to an album with a distinct holiday undertone. Nothing about prodigy Julian Lage’s 2016 release Arclight is directly related to the holiday season; the album is comprised mostly original compositions, and the only two covers are the W.C. Handy tune “Harlem Blues” and the superbly done “Nocturne” from Spike Hughes. No, instead it’s the choice of a Telecaster for this jazz album that touches on the distinct winter holiday atmosphere of softened, emotional masculinity. The chimey tin of the Telecaster being handled in such a deft, dexterous manner elicits the same warm feelings that Bowie singing with Bing does. The holidays give a kind of social permission for normally harder or aggressive singers to display a longing for family and tradition, to explore the nostalgia of holidays past, through stripped down and poignant versions of holiday classics. Lage’s gorgeous, glimmering guitar headlines a moving, delightful album that showcases his skill as much as it turns the listener inward.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
In a season two episode of Dexter, FBI Agent Frank Lundy is studying photos of a Bay Harbor Butcher murder while listening to Miles Davis. When Debra enters the room, Lundy says that Frédéric Chopin could be perfect music for his work. Later, Debra is seen listening to Chopin’s “Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2” on the treadmill. When “Nocturne in E-flat” comes over the audio, the scene slows down and the meaning is clear: Debra’s mind is at peace. Years ago when I first saw the episode, I wondered how anyone could listen to such calming music during physical exertion. I’ve been a runner for 13 years and I’ve been lifting for four and a half. As I’ve pointed out before, I prefer punk and metal –or, really, anything heavy and/or fast — when I work out because I need a distraction (read: I need to drown out the voice in my head that tells me to stop), and because I just assumed that quiet or calm music would slow me down or otherwise hinder me in some way. It wasn’t until earlier this year when Miles came up on a favorite songs playlist during a workout that I had an epiphany about why someone would listen to anything that doesn’t resemble Metallica or Bad Religion: it’s because the music calms your mind, not your body. Which is to say, calming music can actually help you go that extra mile or push through an extra rep. I know this because I had Arclight on during my workouts this past week. And not only was I able to focus better, but I found that the ebb and flow of the record matched the sets and breaks. And I think it’s because Arclight is fun and playful, and it’s also technically impressive. Maybe more so than anywhere else on the album, the pair of songs “Stop Go Start” and “Activate” work best as a microcosm of my point. “Stop” slowly morphs from dreamscape to nightmare as it progresses. In this way, its eeriness creeps in on ya kinda like that voice in my head that tells me I should be home on the couch instead of suffering at the gym. And then when it’s over, “Activate” is spritely and uplifting and I think, “I ain’t done yet. I can do this.” I like that.
While you’re at it, just go listen to all of Live In Los Angeles. You won’t be disappointed.
There’s a study for just about everything. For every person who dabbles, there’s a person who is completely and fundamentally enraptured. As a fan of punk, metal, or rock n roll, I say I love guitar music, but as soon as I think about it, I am really imagining chords, strums, and even picking which falls into familiar and fairly pedestrian patterns. Passion doesn’t have to be about physical assertion and the direct translation of aggression into a guitar chord. Someone like Julian Lage, who graced the stage of the Grammys in 2000 at the age of 15 and just 8 years later graduated from Berklee College of Music, the 4th college at which he studied in those same years, channels his passion into a truly academic understanding of guitar. Arclight, his 4th solo album, places notes the way poets use words. While “Fortune Teller” gets right to the point with an almost jarringly sense of urgency, “Supera” is gentle, a happy-go-lucky melody as wistful and non-aggressive as guitar music can be. Outside of using a label as broad as “jazz guitar,” it’s hard to know how to properly classify music as easy on the ears and yet as hard to quantify as this. Though it’s clear that the guitar takes centre stage, it’s also worth noting that the entire thing is rooted by a stand-up bass which is given more than just a little room to breathe. It borrows the spotlight on the opening of “Stop Go Start” and even lends some dynamics to a range of symbols, shakers, and advanced percussion. This is music to think about and music to inspire. This is the form of guitar work that reminds you that for every distorted, lashed-out guitar solo on a rock or punk record, there’s an instrument worthy of a deeper and far more respectful relationship. If rock music is an uncontrolled, drug or alcohol fueled night on the town ending in a mosh pit, the jazz of Arclight is a quiet dinner, a glass of wine, and a meaningful conversation before returning home and early and to bed. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.
I know so many people who hate any instrumental music. “I need lyrics,” they cry, “because without lyrics it’s boring!” And I always want to reply (but rarely do), “so, I guess it’s not actually music you like, then, is it?” Even when I don’t say anything, I frown because the thought of excluding entire walls of sound and valleys of mood music from my rotation makes me both sad and angry. Instrumentals, scores, and jazz feature heavily on my reading and writing playlists, and Julian Lage’s Arclight definitely falls into the category of mood music for me. Imagine, if you will, that at some point in the ’90s Bill Frisell scored a zany animated series that aired on a cable network like MTV or Nickelodeon. Listen to “Activate” and tell me it wouldn’t work perfectly on Liquid Television, or even Ren and Stimpy. I don’t think you can.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
The day after I graduated high school, I took some of my gift money over to a local bookstore, determined to continue my education on my own terms. The book I bought should be on the shelves of every person with an interest in music: Francis Bebey’s landmark work, African Music: A People’s Art. There were two main takeaways from the book that I’ve never forgotten. The first was his description of the integral role music plays in many African cultures, how it’s not something you set aside time to do or see, but is rather woven into every waking minute of your day. The second was the idea that all early instruments were based on the human body: the melodies of voices, the beat of the heart, the sound and rhythm of a hand striking flesh. Drums, harps, horns — they were all designed to emulate human physicality. So, when listening to instrumental music as we are this week with Julian Lage’s fourth album, Arclight, I sometimes like to think about what are the sounds are saying. In other words, what are the attitudes and stories being expressed by the instruments? In Lage’s case, I get a sense of wry amusement, a raised eyebrow at the world, a disinterest in taking things too seriously. He uses his phenomenal, liquid technique to skate on the surface of life, a water-strider leaving ripples on a lake. I can imagine using this record to speed my way through a crowded subway commute, taking on Lage’s bemused affect as my own, which would help me not get infuriated at the people who stand in the doorway when I’m trying to get on, or those who try to get on at the exact same time I’m trying to get off! Let the next track play and chill out, Jeremy! That said, I do think Lage is at his best when he and his cohorts (Scott Colley on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums and percussion) shade into a little mystery, as on “Stop Go Start,” which comes smack in the middle of the album. Colley and Wollesen start it off with cymbal splashes, dusky vibraphone notes and a serpentine bass groove. Lage takes his place with fragments of melody, little one-liners, a haunted-house progression here, some drunken asides there. It’s abstract and wayward and completely absorbing. Even the 10-minute version on the subsequent release, Live In Los Angeles, seems to be over far too soon. I confess to be completely aware of Lage when he made his well-publicized entry onto the national scene as a child prodigy made good — and being mostly bored by his early albums. Arclight has more than a few flashes of sparkle and wit, making me think Lage’s development as an artist is not as stalled as I thought and that I need to keep more of an eye on his future activities. Whatever your own preconceptions, give Arclight a listen and see if you agree.
Lage’s musical resume and technical pedigree speak for themselves, but not louder than these absorbing songs do.
Ah, now this is a classic Davy Jones album. It’s cool. It’s chill. It’s relaxing. It’s the perfect beach album. That, and my old pal Davy surely admires the expert guitar acrobatics that Julian Lage seems to pile on with the least bit of effort. After quite a stressful week abroad on a business trip, Arclight is exactly the ice cold beer that I needed to ease my mind, body, and soul. I don’t take baths because gross, but if I did, I’d have “Nocturne” playing in the background. What I also found comforting about this album is that it takes me back to my early days of digging in the crates for samples. You see, when I started out, I was after the jazzy samples that my heroes like A Tribe Called Quest, Gangstarr, and many others used. So in that quest, it’s inevitable that you’ll run into the smooth Bossa Nova grooves similar to that of “Supera.” The extra wavy guitar licks of “Stop Go Start” brought me right back to my first pieces of vinyl from greats like Earl Klugh and George Benson. And the jewel of the album, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” reminded me of the first time I heard Wes Montgomery while searching for the sample DJ Premier used for the intro to Group Home’s album (“Yesterday,” if you’re interested). Any record that can excavate those kinds of memories is a winner for me.
Jazz always reminds me of the pre-Christmas buzz. From my earliest memories, I can remember standing out in the cold at my local holiday street fair waiting for hours to see the Christmas tree light up while listening to local Jazz bands play for what felt like all night long. My memories don’t stop there though. I swear every mall in America cracks out the good jazz by mid-November, so I guess it could be that you hear it throughout big department stores or it could be purely my own association with the holidays. Whatever the reason, listening to Arclight in chilly November just reminds me of spiced lattes and shopping. With that fond association already embedded into my psyche, it’s honestly hard to stay objective. Here’s my best shot: Arclight is a deeply emotive instrumental album led by some of the sweetest Telecaster swells I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. Lage channels some guitar legends essences throughout the album — Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and even the odd Clapton tone manages to creep in the mix, but Lage isn’t a copycat by any measure. He always puts his own spin on his riffs that take his music to the next level and beyond. This album has a knack for hitting all the right grooves and moves perfectly alongside your day to day activities. A must have for any occasion!
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
I don’t know if it’s just how I was raised or if there’s a far more complicated reason involving the hardwiring of my brain at play, but I don’t ever find myself in the mood for jazz. It’s at a point where I know that there are many types of jazz, but I wouldn’t know how to differentiate between styles without the aid of at least some kind of reading material. Wait, let me walk that back a little bit. I may not know about the different subgenres of jazz, but I can at least tell when the primary instrument is a guitar rather than a piano or saxophone. So I may not know what Julian Lage specializes in, but I know that Arclight is heavy on the guitar-based compositions. I also know that it makes for some fantastic cleaning music. That’s an odd statement coming from me — generally I relate music to my commute to and from work, but this week I decided to do a deep cleaning of my apartment while the roommates were away. As it turns out, I can focus more on the task at hand when I’m not singing along with lyrics. I finished sweeping the hallway, living room and kitchen in what felt like record time to the tune of “Fortune Teller” (it would have been thematically more appropriate to sweep the floors to “Persian Rug” but alas…), and wiping down the bathroom walls to the zippy “Activate” almost had me forgetting just how grimy those tiles had become. Admittedly, not all of the songs are great for cleaning though. Some of the slower jams, like the closer “Ryland,” were more fitting for when I took a break and cracked open a beer. Which, looking back at that sentence, I’ve realized is just as important to the cleaning process as the actual cleaning. I may not know a whole lot about jazz, but I did learn a lot about my own personal relationship with the music on this particular album this past week.
Guitar mastery within rock music has always been interesting to me. At first, I was just struck by the talent itself, those wielding extraterrestrial power over a stringed instrument either amplified or acoustic. Later, my mind shifted to the creation, establishment, and ultimate death of the “guitar hero.” Sure, rock music always has someone writing its obituary, which any music fan knows is laughable, but the idea of the guitar hero has definitely fallen by the wayside since the ’90s returned guitar music to a more grounded and obtainable standard. It might also have to do something with the mindset of these possible new guitar heroes too. I recall Rolling Stone doing a feature in 2006 that focused on the new wave of guitar heroes, specifically highlighting John Mayer (blues and pop), Derek Trucks (country and rock), and John Frusciante (psychedelic & funk). Well, in the years that followed that feature, Mayer moved away from the sound that was giving him praise, Frusciante pretty much abandoned the guitar in favor of glitch and hip-hop production, and Derek Trucks became more of a collaborator than a lead. And that’s not to criticize any of them — except John Mayer, because it’s easy and because I also loved Continuum. Perhaps the modern musician is different — just look to Matt Bellamy of Muse. A more than proficient guitarist, I think Bellamy himself shudders at the idea of being labelled a guitar hero, probably hoping someone moves him closer to Freddie Mercury than Jimi Hendrix when placing him in the canon of rock music. (I’d bring up Annie Clark too, but I don’t have time to unpack all of her eclectic wonderment here.) All of this comes to mind when listening to Julian Lage, despite knowing that there’s no way someone would call him a guitar hero in the classic sense. Don’t get the wrong idea — his talents definitely earn him the right to that designation, and his song-crafting ability is not far behind. (Songwriting, to me, is a forgotten, yet defining aspect of a true guitar hero. See Hendrix, Frusciante, and even, yes, Townshend.) But Lage just doesn’t fit in with the concrete concept of a guitar hero. Instead, Lage has all the makings of what a guitar hero should or would be in 2018. He makes the guitar eloquent, able to speak on a variety of issues that one can translate if they have the time and desire. He’s wide-ranging, pushing his skill and instrument into new places even within the context of jazz, so much in fact that I thought at the beginning of Arclight that this was going to be a continuation of Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet which we covered in Issue #123. Above all else, he inspires, which I think just might be the most defining aspect of the true guitar hero (the original version and 2018 version). Just like Robert Johnson did in my youth and John Frusciante continues to do today, Lage makes me want to pick up one of the two guitars in my home office and really learn how to play. Like my favorite guitar heroes though, Lage doesn’t make me want to learn a crazy lick or some complex strumming patterns — he just makes me want to understand the guitar better and the music it can create, all so I can realize my own sound on it. And that’s the right type of hero to have in 2018.
Danse Macabre by The Faint
Chosen By James Anderson