Jazz Album Review: Julian Lage’s “Speak to Me” — Mostly Magical

By Michael Ullman

Guitarist Julian Lage wants his music to have a certain paradoxical lightness: to be “reckless and durable” at the same time.

Julian Lage, Speak to Me (Blue Note)

Guitarist Julian Lage is that rare thing: a child prodigy who grew up to be a legitimate star, a brilliantly distinctive player, composer, and arranger. It’s hard to say who discovered him. The self-described “music nerd” started on guitar when he was four. When his dad took up the instrument he wanted to imitate his dad. In an interview I did with him a decade ago, Lage still sounded grateful: “He did a couple brilliant things. First he bought me an electric guitar rather than acoustic. Electric is easier: it sounds pretty. The other thing is, he purposely didn’t teach me any songs.” He spent his time improvising on scales. When Lage, one of five kids, was five, he started studying with a local Santa Rosa guitarist, Randy Vincent. At eight years old he was the subject of a documentary. When he was nine or 10, his teacher introduced him to the now famous Gary Burton album Duster, which features guitarist Larry Coryell in some of his most lyrical performances.

What happened next seems almost magical. The preteen appeared with a group of kids on a segment of a Grammy telecast designed to promote jazz education. Gary Burton was watching. He said: “Within ten seconds of hearing him (Lage), I knew he was loaded with talent.” Burton promptly telephoned the youngster: “We had a terrific phone call, discussing songs, harmony progressions, favorite records — all the usual musicians’ shop talk. The difference was that I was talking to a twelve year old.” The wonders didn’t cease: three years later, Burton asked Lage’s parents for permission to let their son, then a sophomore in high school, record with Burton’s new quartet. The opening piece on Burton’s Generation is Lage’s aptly titled “First Impressions.” When he entered Berklee College, thanks to Burton’s insatiable curiosity and generosity, Lage was already launched as a recording artist: he was also on Burton’s Next Generation, which was recorded before he took a class

When I talked to Lage, he recalled his early practice on scales. He thought it made his melody playing questionable: “To this day it’s so in my constitution to improvise that I struggle with songs.… I want to know how to play a melody, play a ballad.” Now 36, he has mastered whatever skills he felt he lacked. His new album, Speak to Me, has some of the most memorable melodies I can imagine. His easy-going “Nothing Happens Here,” with its warm simplicity and relaxed air, is entrancing. For this session, Lage has gathered some of jazz’s brightest stars as sidepersons, including pianist Kris Davis and reedman Levon Henry. What’s more, his use of these musicians is remarkable. Always alert to the ensemble’s needs, they slide into the mix and sometimes out of it in subtle ways. And that is just what their leader wants. Lage spoke to me about hearing Wayne Shorter live, and feeling that the musicians in the group were virtually invisible. Shorter’s music wasn’t about being “killing,” and Lage follows in his nuanced path. He’s a virtuoso guitarist who doesn’t want to sound intense all the time. He wants his music to have a certain paradoxical lightness: to be “reckless and durable” at the same time.

Speak to Me is a deliberately mixed bag. Its 13 numbers begin reverently with “Hymnal,” whose melody is familiar (its opening sounds like “Fly Me to the Moon.”) The tune begins with Lage on acoustic guitar, in conversation with bassist Jorge Roeder, who does double duty on vibraphone. The initial melody gives way to a passage of tremolo and then a new melody, behind which we hear the vibes and “strings” rendered by Patrick Warren. The piece is satisfying and short. Then something funny happens: on electric, Lage introduces “Northern Shuffle,” a coyly stomping number. Here the use of the ensemble is clever and effective. Levon Henry interjects little whack-a-mole figures that sometimes remain in the background and sometimes emerge aggressively. We hear Kris Davis emerge and solo on this bluesy piece. Henry is given a solo on tenor; he moves around the horn eccentrically, with beeps and honks. It’s light as Lage seems to wish, even though it is convincingly rocking.

“South Mountain” begins mysteriously, with high-pitched sounds from acoustic bass and piano. Its countryish melody is played over oddly pitched, dancing figures from Davis. When Henry comes in with an occasional squeak and run, the two sound like they might be sabotaging the melody. But then it all works out sweetly; in the end, the spurts of dissonance hold our interest. Bassist Roeder is given prominent parts throughout, including a solo on “Vanishing Points.” The album ends on what might be a note of self-mockery: the gracefully swinging “Nothing Happens Here.” In a typical Lage arrangement, he begins by playing the melody against a spare background. Gradually, the accompanists impose themselves, though modestly — nobody is trying to be killing. But the performance has its own churning excitement. It’s a four-minute masterpiece to which each musician contributes.

Blue Note has done its part. The album is beautifully, realistically recorded. The sound is gorgeously precise; the band mostly placed in the middle of the soundstage. It always sounds as if we are in the same room. I wish we were.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bimonthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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  1. PF on May 9, 2024 at 6:34 pm

    I find the recording to be bright and somewhat thin. Not the first time I am hearing this on JL recordings. Apparently he likes this sound. Wish I did…cause the music is stellar!

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