SCORES OF CDS BY JAZZ GUITARISTS ARE
released every month, most of them remarkably
similar both musically and sonically. But
Julian Lage’s Sounding Point [EmArcy] is different,
as becomes evident upon hearing the first
few notes. Lage’s electric tone exudes classic
warmth and roundness, but also woody mids
and airy highs more characteristic of an acoustic.
And as the cello, sax, upright bass, and percussion
gradually enter, each instrument can be
heard with the sort of presence and realism
more often found on primo orchestral recordings
than jazz outings. The music is equally
atypical: an extraordinary amalgam of jazz,
classical, blues, and bluegrass, interwoven with
African, Indian, and other ethnic tonalities, and
executed with breathtaking fluidity and sensitivity.
One thinks, “Surely this must be the work
of a veteran guitarist and composer accompanied
by seasoned pros—but who?
Julian Lage is 21 years old. Celebrated as a
prodigy when he was eight, Lage has recorded
two albums as part of legendary vibraphonist
Gary Burton’s band, contributed to Grammynominated
jazz records by pianist Taylor Eigsti
and vocalist Neena Freelon, played and recorded
with David Grisman, and received accolades
from a long list of luminaries that includes Herbie
Hancock, Martin Taylor, and Charles Lloyd.
He studied classical music at the San Francisco
Conservatory, jazz at Sonoma State, Indian
music at the Ali Akbar College of Music, and
is currently furthering his knowledge of
advanced classical composition at Berklee College
Joining Lage on Sounding Point are young
Boston-based musicians drummer/percussionist
Tupac Mantilla, bassist Jorge Roeder, cellist
Aristides Rivas, and saxophonist Ben Roseth,
along with Eigsti, banjo maestro Béla Fleck,
and Nickel Creek mandolin star Chris Thile.
You are generally presented as a jazz artist, but your
playing encompasses several idioms, and there’s an
orchestral feel to your compositions. Do you think
of yourself as a “jazz” guitarist?
I definitely come from a jazz guitar lineage
or school of playing, though I don’t think I’d
necessarily call myself a jazz guitarist, because
I don’t take a typical jazz approach. Of course,
these days most jazz guitarists have diverse
influences, and so maybe that’s just become
part of the definition. As far as taking an orchestral
approach to composition, studying classical
and orchestral music is my primary educational
focus right now, and has been for years. I mostly
write music using the guitar, however, so when
I’m composing I’m also learning how to play
You have studied seriously within several traditions.
How has each of them contributed to your
approach to the guitar?
The jazz idiom has taught me versatility,
because the role of the guitar can be so different
depending on the gig. In a trio it might be
like a hybrid saxophone and guitar instrument,
whereas in a big band it might play more of a
Freddie Green rhythm role, and in a Djangostyle
band it will be something else entirely.
The classical realm has taught me a lot about
tone production, touch, and what it means to
be a classical performer, which I am really not—
I’m more of a classical composition student.
Bluegrass playing has been a big influence on
me, and that is also about tone production, as
well as a driving picking technique that is very
different than swing, yet in some ways links
to Gypsy jazz.
How about Indian music?
Indian music has taught me about storytelling,
and pacing while playing for long
periods of time. Also, because it is mostly about
single lines, and there is no harmony as we
think of it, it made me see that there are other
ways of looking at music besides playing over
chord changes. It also taught me about
expression. How and where am I striking
the string? What kind of vibrato am I using?
Shading? Those aspects of my playing were
very Indian inspired.
Given your varied background, do you play with
both a pick and your fingers?
I play with a pick, and I always have,
though there was a period of about eight
months where I was trying hard to not use
one. Some of my favorite guitarists—Julian
Bream, Bola Sete, Lionel Loueke—are amazing
fingerstyle players who just go right to
it without a pick. But now I always play
with one, though I sometimes use crossstring
and alternate picking techniques to
imply that I’m playing with my fingers. On
the recording I just used basic 1.5mm picks,
but later I began using medium Wegen
TF140 triangular picks. More recently, I’ve
started using BlueChip picks, which are
made from a composite that’s a lot like
tortoise shell, and doesn’t wear. I have an
issue with wear, because I go through picks
Your electric playing has a very acoustic sound,
and it is often difficult to detect a pick. How do
you achieve that?
I’m interested in the movement of the
body and how it expresses itself as my hand
connects with the strings. For example, can
my breathing work with my picking to produce
a more transparent sound, so that I
hear only the guitar and not the picking?
Another consideration might be that the
strings are meeting the pick as much as the
pick is meeting the strings. If I feel like I’m
the one who is producing the sound, I get
in my own way. But if I think of the string
as also pushing back against me, I’m sharing
the responsibility of producing sound
with the guitar, which lends an acoustic
quality to the sound. I also practice without
an amplifier as much as possible. I try to produce
an acoustic sound I love, and then I try
to get that sound from an amp, but a little
louder. I feel that was achieved really well
on the album.
What was your signal chain on the record?
I played my Linda Manzer archtop
through a Fender Twin Reverb. I don’t put
anything in the signal path, and all the tone
controls on the amp are basically straight
up, with the reverb set to 2 or 3. I played the
acoustic parts on a Martin D-18GE.
Was the Manzer archtop built to your specifications?
No. It was made for a guitarist named
Dawn Thompson. I bought it used, but it
is exactly the type of guitar I would have
had made for myself. It has a 5-ply maple/
mahogany laminate top made by Roger
Boyrs—who made tops for D’Aquisto—so
feedback isn’t a problem, and the string
spacing is a little wider than the spacing
on the Gibson ES-175 that I used to play.
Eventually I had her build a second one,
and because it was around the time I was
playing without a pick, I asked her to make
the string spacing on that guitar even wider.
The second guitar also has a top made by
Borys, and because it was the last one he
made, the instrument is of some historical
significance. Both guitars have a single
Kent Armstrong humbucker wired directly
to the output jack.
Why did you choose the D-18GE as your main
Dick Boak at Martin recommended it. It
has an Adirondack spruce top, and mahogany
sides and back. I love the giant V-shaped
sometimes, and also Sadowsky Alloy 52s,
which are made from a really cool Nickel-
Iron SuperAlloy. Eric Schoenberg makes great
80/20-style acoustic strings that I like. I use
gauges .013-.056 on all my guitars, always
with a wound third.
You mentioned achieving an acoustic-like electric
sound in the studio. Did you mic the guitar
body as well as the amp?
That’s right. There was a mic on the amp,
a mic on the body of the guitar, and other
mics all around the room. We recorded live
in a large space with everyone in a circle, so
you are hearing me in other people’s microphones,
as well. The sound we were going
for was everyone in a room together, with
me playing guitar.
Producer Steven Epstein and engineer Richard
King are primarily involved in recording classical
music, and it sounds as if they were applying classical
recording techniques on your album.
They are my favorite production team.
They get that feeling that the listener is in
the room with the musicians, and can visualize
where every musician is located in the
room around them. One of the ways they
did that was by using a Decca Tree, which
is an old way of miking an orchestra [The
original Decca Tree employed three omnidirectional
condenser microphones in a wide
“inverted-T” array, panned right/center/left to
capture an entire orchestra in stereo]. If we were
recording a quintet, I’d maybe be on the
left side of the microphones and the bassist
would be on the right side. But if we were
a trio, I might move to the center. During
the sessions we were constantly moving
around the room, which was unlike other
recording sessions I’ve done, where you
basically sit in your chair in one spot the
The two short solo acoustic pieces on the album
were extrapolated from the longer “Long Day,
Short Night.” Describe that process.
Those solo pieces are improvised. I
wrote the original song with Chris and Bela,
and there were a lot of themes and places
where the song could have gone, which I
wanted to explore. But I wanted to explore
not only the thematic material, but also
the physical material that was a part of
playing “Long Day, Short Night.” There are
a lot of sharp turns, and changes of tempo
and mood, and that has a physical color to
it and characteristic that I was really drawn
to. What does that mean for the right hand,
and what does that mean for the left hand?
So I went at it from a kinesthetic point of
view as much as I did a musical point of view.
I’m always kind of checking the same thing
out from as many angles as possible.
Has being recognized so young proven to be
an advantage or a disadvantage?
It has definitely been an advantage. That
doesn’t mean that the potential for it to be
burdensome wasn’t there, but I was fortunate
to have the support of parents who
didn’t exploit me. I had from five until ten
to just play, without thinking about a career,
so by the time I began to play professionally
I had already been learning at my own
pace. My parents gave me the space to be
a child with music. The funny thing is that
the question I would hear most as a kid
was, “Oh, don’t you wish you could just
be a kid and go do kid things?” And I’d be
thinking, “What’s more childlike than