No one playing the guitar has more fun than Julian Lage.
No one playing the guitar has more fun than Julian Lage. Whether exploring Americana with Chris Eldridge, chasing more outré sounds with Nels Cline or bouncing along with vibraphonist Gary Burton, Lage brings a certain jouissance to whatever he touches. We’ve almost passed the era where we think back to his prodigy days, and as he blasts through a series of releases as a leader or half of a duo, new work increasingly overshadows his unusual biography. Two years ago he put together a trio for Arclight and skipped through early jazz influences, chasing a history of old sounds on his Telecaster. Now he’s got the trio together again (with a little extra help) for what’s ostensibly a look at some rock ‘n’ roll influences, but Modern Lore sounds less like a retrospective and more like a contemporary statement.
Lage holds true to some fundamentals of his electric guitar playing. Both his tone and his lines remain remarkably clean, and he sounds relaxed whether working through a simple melody or something more virtuosic. His interests lie more in stretching his lyricism than in technical wizardry, though he doesn’t lack that gift. “Pantheon” closes the album like an old-fashioned ballad, but Lage draws unusual tones and distinctive phrasings here while bassist Scott Colley anchors the melody. It’s the sort of confident composition that lets the details turn the song into something extra.
“Earth Science,” the preceding number, finds joy in a different approach to composition. Lage plays with a greater abstraction, and both Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen take more experimental routes. Lage’s experience with geology must not match that of most junior high kids, unless you count the fidgeting, because he pushes outward with his playing. Opener “The Ramble” offers a third approach. That track rides a consistent upbeat groove before launching into some guitar heroics that draw together Lage’s country, jazz and blues sounds (arguably making it rock).
The diversity of music presented on the album contained within a singular tone makes Modern Lore an almost quintessential Lage moment. He’s using a rock guitar to play jazzy versions of compositions that are neither rock nor jazz, and, despite melding the two fields together, he stays far from fusion. “Atlantic Limited” has more to do with cowboys than it does anything else. Somehow Lage plays the role of Roy Rogers where you might expect to see Jack Johnson, all with a vibrant tone that’s as classy as it is personal.
In all of this structure, it’s hard not to hear absolute pleasure in the playing. Lage and his collaborators have again assembled an album that can be slinky, funky or meditative but never ceases to be charming. Modern Lore works as a sequel to Arclight as the trio further develop their sound and Lage refines one side of his playing, which itself is multifaceted. As he moves from project to project, it’ll be hard to guess what comes next, even within the confines of this group, but it seems likely that, if nothing else, it will be fun.