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Julian Lage: ‘It’s criminal that I haven’t played in Ireland. I’ve been gunning for it’

Jazz guitarist, whose new album, Speak to Me, is out on Blue Note, first made waves as a child prodigy. His trajectory has continued upwards ever since


There is a scene in the short documentary film Jules at Eight, a portrait of Julian Lage as a child prodigy made in 1996, in which – as well as showing him playing bravura blues, jazz and classical tunes on full-size guitars almost as tall as he is – he says that he has played every day since he was five. “Except this one day I had to go away and we couldn’t take the guitar on the train,” he adds, dolefully. “And I really regret that day.”

Lage laughs when I remind him of the remark – but, he says, at the age of 36, things haven’t changed. In fact, he now takes his daily practice sessions one stage further by recording and listening back to them.

“I was doing it just this morning,” he says from his home in the New Jersey town of Verona, about 25km from Manhattan. “I have a kind of archival disposition, and a good way for me to learn is to hear myself attempting something one day, and then another, and then listening to both back to back. I think you can practise yourself out of an ability or towards a bias. The notion that progress is a straight line up is not entirely accurate.”

As true as that may be, it’s hard to think of Lage’s musical growth in the intervening years as anything but vertical.

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Although there have been several child and teen prodigies in jazz – the keyboardist Herbie Hancock, the drummer Tony Williams, the trumpeter Roy Hargrove and, more recently, the Indonesian pianist Joey Alexander – such exceptional young talents often do not grow up to be adult virtuosos like Lage. Very few have also shown such an open and adventurous approach to their music; an ability to communicate so powerfully with an audience, often one beyond the sometimes introspective borders of jazz; and an artistry that continues to exponentially evolve and expand.

“He’s a total guitar genius, really, but what’s more impressive is the tremendous humanity that Julian is working with,” the guitarist and singer Chris Eldridge has said; the pair have released two acoustic guitar albums together that effortlessly elide bluegrass, country, gospel, old-time music and jazz.

“One of the special ones!” Béla Fleck has said; the banjo master and pioneer plays on Lage’s 2009 debut release, Sounding Point, in a stellar trio completed by the mandolin wizard Chris Thile; the record was nominated for a Grammy Award for best contemporary jazz album.

Lage was born on Christmas Day 1987 and grew up the youngest of five siblings in “a very creative household” in the northern California city of Santa Rosa. His mother, Susan, was a “force of nature” inspired by interests that ranged from Buddhism to interior design; his father, Mario, was a visual artist who himself had a one-man gallery show at the age of 12. Mario was also passionate about music; he began playing the guitar when Julian was four.

“Straight away I was obsessed with the guitar, and a year later my parents got me one,” says Lage. He speaks with a soft, gentle, almost singsong voice; his manner is relaxed, warm and sincere. “I remember so vividly wanting to be with my father, and I loved that I had something to share with him. It was almost a way of plugging into my family and plugging into myself. I was looking for a purpose, something of my own.”

Lage describes his parents as “an unparalleled influence”; as his guitar abilities rapidly developed and, even in a pre-social-media era, gained wider recognition and fame, they were there to encourage, nurture and support. By eight he had played onstage with Carlos Santana, at 11 he made his recording debut, with the bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman, and a year later he was both touring with the jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton and appearing live at the Grammys.

“I think my parents erected some sort of force field around me that allowed me space to practise but that also protected me from exploitation,” he says. “I also feel very much like a disciple of them aesthetically. They invited me to think about art and creativity as something beautiful and essential, and that music should feel good, certainly more than it should be technically impressive.”

By 15 Lage had become a faculty member of the Jazz Workshop at Stanford University; he went on to mostly classical studies at San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Berklee College of Music, in Boston – he graduated from Berklee in 2008, aged 20.

Since his debut he has released 13 absorbingly diverse albums that have mixed jazz with rock, folk and classical (Gladwell), paired him with the sparky and many-sided Wilco guitarist Nels Cline (Room), recorded him solo acoustic (World’s Fair) and featured his own trios, including the mainly covers album Love Hurts. (At the same time Lage has increasingly shown a gift for writing his own, winningly lyrical and offbeat originals.) In 2021 he signed to the storied Blue Note label and has released three quietly innovative albums, two featuring the genre-defying guitar master and role model Bill Frisell.

Lage has also found time to play and record with, among others, the venerated jazz elder Charles Lloyd and the upcoming R&B singer-songwriter Cautious Clay and to appear on no fewer than 18 albums with the inimitable New York composer, saxophonist and experimentalist John Zorn. (He has also performed, coproduced albums and made videos with his wife, the fine indie rock/alt-pop singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy.)

What unifies much of his prolific output is not just “a really deep interest in the lineage of American music”, and specifically the guitar’s vital place within it, but also a heartfelt respect for the integrity and beauty of melody and the structure of a song. There is a storytelling element to Lage’s playing, even or especially when he improvises, and it comes as little surprise to learn that he has practised while listening to the cadences of orators such as James Baldwin, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. “Throughout my life I’ve always responded to music that has a narrative quality to it,” he says.

He has also forged a guitar voice that honours many of his musical enthusiasms yet remains singularly his own, honed his craft by judiciously editing and refining his voluminous talents (“It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play,” Dizzy Gillespie once famously said) and focused increasingly on the music that moves him the most: jazz.

“I started out as a blues player, and I love bluegrass, but today I think of myself as a jazz musician, 100 per cent,” he says. “I’m obsessed with jazz, as a discipline and lineage – I just love it and think it’s so cool. And I feel very lucky to have been the recipient of the teachings of jazz musicians.”

In particular, he is thinking of Gary Burton and the consummate guitar great Jim Hall, whom Lage played with, and was mentored by, until Hall’s death in 2013. Lage has acknowledged many guitarists he admires – from Bonnie Raitt and Tony Rice, via John Abercrombie and John Lee Hooker, to Ida Presti and Andrés Segovia – yet, for him, Jim Hall, “That’s God, that’s like the top of it all.”

“The most dazzling thing about Jim was the effect he had on the musicians he played with,” says Lage. “Not only did he make everyone sound better, but he elicited sensitivity, intimacy, vulnerability, catharsis, risk-taking and adventure by his mere presence and ability to listen and respond.”

Many of those heightened qualities are to be found on Lage’s new album, Speak to Me. Featuring his regular trio of Jorge Roeder, on bass, and Dave King (of The Bad Plus), on drums, augmented by Levon Henry, on saxophones and clarinets, Kris Davis, on piano, and Patrick Warren, on keyboards, the 13-track set of new compositions is both the fullest expression yet of the breadth and depth of Lage’s unique gifts and possibly his strongest record to date.

Speak to Me, produced by the singer-songwriter Joe Henry, who has worked with Lisa Hannigan, Glen Hansard and Rhiannon Giddens, evinces an extraordinary range of moods and styles, from early rock’n’roll to Django-like gypsy jazz, country pop to a John Scofield-style R&B jam, Spanish-tinged elegy to slow country blues – all connected, filtered and sometimes pleasingly warped through Lage’s advanced jazz sensibility and highly developed musical personality.

“My friend and career-long mentor, [the producer and songwriter] T Bone Burnett, has said that the hallmark of any great artist is generosity,” writes Joe Henry in an email. “And I don’t believe Julian’s artistry can be separated from his fundamental nature, which is one, yes, of remarkable generosity, and of kindness and empathy. His musical explorations – as both a composer and performer – are never about advertising his virtuosity. But rather, he uses his prowess as a tool of curiosity ... a way of offering his audiences something of his humanity. Which connects any listener to their own.

As giving and abundant as Speak to Me is, I joke with Lage that one thing the new album doesn’t contain is any strain of Irish traditional music and its attendant influence on many of the American roots and folk forms that resonate so strongly in his music.

“Yes, you’re right!” he says, smiling. “Irish music is very much a part of the DNA of most of the things I love, and I do think it’s criminal that I haven’t played in Ireland. When I was more in the bluegrass world, all roads led back to Irish fiddle traditions, and as a string player it’s almost like a pilgrimage that you must make. I feel like there are a lot of connections that have yet to blossom. So, believe me, I’ve been gunning for it. I want to come to Ireland so bad.”

Speak to Me is on Blue Note Records