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 of Music.
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 the instrument.
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 quickly.
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 acoustic?
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 whole time.
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 playing music?”