Full disclosure: by a certain metric, this recommendation post is coming in just over a year late. But virtuosic jazz guitarist Julian Lage is one prolific fellow, and has put out not one, not even two, but three releases in the time span between then and now. Then again, it’s not hard to see why; the man’s improvisation skills are stunning to behold, tossing out fully realized lead moments left and right with comfortable ease.
The first of those three records, Arclight, was released all the way back in early March 2016, but it’s an ideal starting point for us today. The entire album features nothing but drums, upright bass, and Lage soloing away on his ’54 Telecaster; and yet the trio traverse impressive amounts of musical ground across the album’s half hour runtime, with the stellar, crystal clear guitar playing consistently remaining the focus of the arrangements. Said guitar playing should be of particular interest to those amongst our readership who — like myself — may consider themselves guitar enthusiasts, or at the very least may be disproportionately focused on the guitar lines in whatever they’re listening to. Of course, for those who are less fascinated in leads and the like, Lage’s ability to seemingly balance two lines at once on his guitar on songs like “Ryland” remains equally mind-blowing.
Live in Los Angeles, in turn, is effectively a good half of Arclight translated into a live setting. This is where Lage’s aforementioned improvisation comes into play, and it is a sheer joy as a guitar enthusiast to hear him take the tunes on Arclight to new creative heights on the spot. Of course, Live in Los Angeles is an even more enjoyable listen overall once one has given Arclight a proper spin or two. “I’ll Be Seeing You” in particular is transformed from a quick cover of a classic to a sprawling, 12-minute masterpiece, opening with three glorious minutes of impeccable solo guitar improvisation that Animals as Leaders fans would delight in.
Lastly, Mount Royal, the third and most recent release — and the one that finally got me to stop postponing this writeup — is quite different from the first two, in that it’s a completely acoustic album borne out of a collaboration with guitarist/vocalist Chris Eldridge (albeit occasionally featuring spirited vocal performances from the latter). The interplay between the two guitarists makes for some incredibly inventive harmonies, with Lage’s jazz chops working side by side with Eldridge’s folk/bluegrass playing with aplomb on the album’s instrumental tracks. Mount Royal does get a little too folk-heavy for my own tastes at times, but there’s still more than enough acoustic guitar brilliance otherwise. It’s also bound to tickle your fancy if you enjoy the acoustic sides of bands like Agalloch and Opeth. Or if you just enjoy a tasty acoustic tune now and then.