The first half of the Wexner Center for the Arts’ 2015-2016 season comes to a gripping close with Julian Lage on November 18 (tickets available here). While of a more classicist bent than the earlier shows this year, Lage’s avant bonafides are secure and have no doubt he’s bringing serious firepower with his trio of Orlando le Fleming on bass and Kenny Wollensen on drums. I saw Lage at Winter Jazz Fest in 2013 in duo with Nels Cline and even though I was well-familiar with the bones of his story – prodigy, star of the documentary Jules at Eight, toured with vibes virtuoso Gary Burton starting at 12 – I was still stunned by how inventive, hip, and intense his playing was. Click through to read more about Lage, the other musicians in his trio, and see video of his playing.
As Nate Chinen from the New York Times said, Lage is, “famously, a prodigy.” Not to slight how few true prodigies we have in the world, but there are far fewer who put the kind of work and study in to develop into as rich and nuanced a player as Lage is at 27. Since his work with the master of subtle melody, Gary Burton, Lage has also logged significant time with drummer Eric Harland (coming to the Wexner Center next year with Charles Lloyd and Friends) in Harland’s Voyager project while always keeping bands going as a leader.
Most interestingly to these ears, the last few years have been devoted in large part to refining Lage’s concept by playing in duo. The above-mentioned work with Cline yielded one of the finest records of 2013, Room. Another duo record, 2013’s Free Flying, paired Lage with longtime Wex favorite Fred Hersch in probably my favorite record either of them had made up to that point. I also saw Lage in duo with pianist Dan Tepfer (locals will remember as Lee Konitz’s foil from the mind-blowing show a few years ago) at Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattan and desperately hope that duo gets into a studio soon, and I’ve heard terrific things about his duo with fellow guitarist Chris Eldridge.
In a terrific interview with Paul Acquaro of the highly recommended Free Jazz Blog, Lage said, “[A] lot of my life has been, and it still is, is trying to be good at the guitar, or at least not to suck, and learning about this challenge or how you do that, but I realized why you even want to learn to play an instrument is to be able to express what you want, and that was a wonderful feeling that playing with Nels helped me feel.” Lage’s record from earlier this year, the solo acoustic World’s Fair, is a study in taste that quote above radiates through.
Jim Hall hangs most heavily over these 12 pieces and that’s never a bad place to start. But as you scratch the surface, other textures and referents make themselves known. There are shadings of solo Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny’s pastoral mode in “Missouri” which stretches out like a gorgeous night sky. Hints of Marc Ribot’s recent acoustic work in the drama and sharpness of “Japan.” Even tiny flecks of Derek Bailey’s Ballads (the solo guitar record I always take out this time of year) on the fracturing middle section of “Peru” with its sudden ringing notes. But World’s Fair doesn’t ultimately sound like anyone other than Julian Lage. Each of these approaches is filtered through a unique voice, the best use of dynamics I’ve heard in a long time, and a touch that wraps its complexity in what feels like a breezy effortlessness.
Rhythm sections for guitarists don’t come much better than the backing Lage is bringing with him for this tour. Orlando Fleming’s rich, chocolatey tone and driving rhythmic confidence has made him a standout with virtuosos like Billy Cobham, Kurt Rosenwinkel, recent Wex visitor Gilad Hekselman, and Branford Marsalis. Kenny Wollensen brings a crunching, subtle attack most widely linked with composer John Zorn and Wex favorite Bill Frisell but his drums pop no matter what the context. Whether he’s playing with David Byrne, Tom Waits, guitarist John Scofield, or soul-jazz organ legend Big John Patton, he’s the kind of drummer that pushes everything to new heights and makes the audience sit up a little straighter.