Living Lage

For Julian Lage, the destination is the scenery along the way

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Julian Lage
Nathan West

Tone and nuance rule the day on Julian Lage’s last album, Modern Lore. A fancy trio rambles down the dusty roads of between-genre Americana that trades in suggestion over flash, and relaxed improvisation over breathless commotion, growling bits of ill-tempered blues, pinched and urgent bent ninths, fleeting resonances of old-timey ballads and coy, lurking-villain shuffles.

A guitarist’s album, to be sure, but equally a composer’s collection as well, Lage’s instincts as a disciple of melody lifts these pieces into their own space, familiar and welcoming. You could swear you’ve heard the drowsy lead line from “Atlantic Limited” before, the indigo melancholy of “Whatever You Say, Henry” conjures the rainy last scene of a lost-love indie film. And OK, Lage reconnects with his post-bop chops on the jumpy “Look Back,” and maybe the title suggests that, but even here Lage prowls wide and rangey, restless to find new fretboard neighborhoods where he can raise a little hell.

Fretboard technicians and harmony anatomists will hear and savor Lage’s effortless navigation through bluesy inversions and tweaked grace note flourishes — there’s plenty for them to love here — but throughout, you get the sense that Lage was trying not to make a record to impress his fans, but make a connection with the Everyman listener. Jazz in general, and guitar jazz specifically, is a quarrelsome genre for this virtue, as it can be prone to lapse from lyrical dancing to raw calisthenics.

In addition to his set at the Fox, Lage will be hosting a master class for local players, a rare treat for player-fans of one of the most beguiling guitarists on the scene today.

“Education has been part of my background, as a student and also as a teacher,” Lage says. “And I’ve gradually started to teach less and less, mainly because of traveling, and I think in order for it to be really strong, it needs to be really focused. I got to the point where I wasn’t teaching at the college much, and not taking private students, but on the road we’re kind of this traveling production where it’s very natural and organic to add this part of the day where we kind of do this master class.

“I have some very specific concepts in mind that are… overlooked, in guitar pedagogy. With respect to… ” he reaches for the right words, “how we process information as guitarists, how we find the things that empower us. How to be intellectually active with the instrument as well as emotionally active with it.”

If that all sounds a bit oblique, it’s worth remembering that Lage himself, who endures the label of a former child prodigy, first learned guitar from his father, who only took up the instrument a year before Lage was born, and quickly scaled a very steep arc. Lage played at the Grammys in 2000 at the age of 12; was a faculty member at the Stanford Jazz Workshop at age 15; and was playing with Gary Burton more or less full-time before he was 17. Now 30, Lage looks over the guitar instruction landscape and sees with different eyes what we flailing amateurs see: an internet parsecs wide and inches deep of online classes, tips and tricks, and home videos of bedroom virtuosos scorching fretboards and usually playing very little actual music.

Some of it is worthwhile, of course, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

“The heartbeat of [the master class] is kind of how to process all the great education that’s out there. There’s a lot. But there’s also a kind of paralysis that sets in with students. And I’ve felt it too. My favorite thing as teacher is to not let students become too dependent on a teacher.”

And if his philosophy as a teacher is a little unorthodox, it may also be his choice of instrument that sets him apart from whatever mainstream guitar jazz is these days. On this record, and his prior trio album, Arclight, Lage wields an ancient Telecaster, one of Leo Fender’s earliest experiments with solid body electric guitars. There have been many, many great players associated with the instrument; we confessed to Lage that our immediate association with the Tele was the late master Roy Buchanan, a titan of technique and peerless summoner of the Tele’s latent squeal and pitiless strafe. Quite a different flavor.

Lage began at a young age on a Stratocaster, but quickly adopted the Tele, and while his earlier recorded career leans heavily on acoustic and semi-hollowbody work, it is the Tele where he feels fully at home.

“I feel fascinated by it,” he says. “It’s an honest instrument, and it definitely has so much potential. For years I played archtop electric-acoustics, which I loved too… but, there was something that wasn’t really native about the design. It always felt like an adaptation of acoustic instruments. [The Telecaster] is always clear and always present. I think it makes me think twice about what I play.”

Around two years ago, in the middle of a club gig, two of the fingers on Lage’s left hand stopped working. Just stopped. He managed to finish his set, but promptly visited a neurologist, had an MRI, and stumped a number of medical personal over the symptoms which, had they been permanent, would at best handicap, and at worst terminate, his career. Scary stuff.

Eventually, it was suggested that he suffered a rare instance of what’s called “focal dystonia,” a condition where a muscle or group of muscles will suddenly lapse into involuntary contractions or paralysis.

“I caught it before it codified as a full-on neurological disorder,” Lage says. “If you’re able to play, that’s the best cure for it, it’s essential for your recovery. It kind of immunizes you from it. So you’re not letting your brain latch on to any one thing.”

On the Bill: An Evening with The Julian Lage Trio. 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. Tickets are $18-$75.