Don’t be scratching your head with this new electric album – Julian Lage flagged his scope for us from the get-go. When the guitarist’s debut arrived in 2009, it contained lighthearted spins on jazz nuggets like “All Blues” as well as plucky exchanges with newgrass banjo ace Bela Fleck. Some pieces used trad swing and blues grammar; a few blended saxophone and cello while prancing like a miniature version of the Paul Winter Consort; several opted for a folksy spin on Americana, pasteled and pulse-driven. Then 21, with a Gary Burton seal of approval on his forehead, Lage was rightly pegged a key new voice in the ever-expanding jazz firmament. Since, he’s recorded with pianist Fred Hersch and guitarist Nels Cline, two cagey sensei who know as much about left-of-center antics as they do mainstream beauty. Last year he made a bluegrass record with one of the Punch Brothers and dropped a solo acoustic date that was divorced from jazz orthodoxy, feeling more like an unholy mix of Russ Barenberg, Tony Rice and John Miller. The finesse he’s brought to the unplugged realm is deep. So now that he has amped up on this new trio disc – his first playing electric guitar exclusively – you can’t act surprised. Dude wants to go everywhere.
Arclight finds Lage grabbing bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen (players who have worked at the sides of Jim Hall and Bill Frisell, respectively – two of the Lage’s string heroes) and putting a bit more oomph behind the kind of insta-catchy melodies that are proving essential to his signature sound. It takes a sec to grok some of the gambits that drive the action on this pithy little instrumental album – even longtime Lage lovers might find the sonic leap a bit jarring at first – but what’s quickly identifiable is the dedication to breezy moods, bittersweet themes and pop clarity – even when things get purposefully jumbled or spacey. The longest track here is 4:02. Producer Jesse Harris, he of the celebrated Brooklyn squad that refined the folk-jazz nexus for which Norah Jones became a poster girl back in the start of the millennium, keeps everything moving nicely. From the driving romp through “Persian Rug” (don’t miss the R Crumb version) to the crispy groove of WC Handy’s “Harlem Blues,” there’s a spry vibe to this program.
Touch is everything in Lage’s acoustic playing. The solo shows I’ve caught have been remarkable due to his skill at feathering into a lick and applying a convincing emotional weight to a phrase. That particular pleasure gets lost a bit in these more aggressive statements, but it makes sense that listeners would have to recalibrate their ears when approaching this kind of shift. Lage doesn’t skimp on dynamics, however; “Nocturne” waxes wistful before it gets raucous for a chorus, and “Supera” swerves all over the place while marking its territory. Things morph from track to track as well. “Stop Go Start” could be a Sun Ra outtake featuring Larry Coryell, “Prospero” revels in its own pummeling volition and “I’ll Be Seeing You,” the only overt standard on the album, is played in a customary jazz trio manner, with interplay being high on the to-do list.
Lage isn’t the first guitarist to conflate twang, groove, swing and other roots musics. Jim Campilongo (another Harris cohort) has been on the case for years, and his work isn’t to be missed. And of course Frisell’s breadth of interest has led him in similar directions. But there’s something enticing in the way this trio operates, pushing towards a spot that bands like John Scofield’s Bar Talk trio reached during their zenith – there’s a guy up front talking, but those around him have plenty to say. Lage has confessed his love for the Fender Telecaster that distinguishes Arclight, and he certainly steps out to milk it for all the variety he can. When the chipper strumming of “Presley” swiftly glides into a flourish of upper register barn burning, it’s pretty obvious this virtuoso has entered a fruitful new part of his trek.