Last week I saw Fred Hersch and Julian Lage at the Herbst performing for San Francisco Jazz Fest. The duo delighted a crowd of eager jazz festival goers all of whom were missing an important Golden State Warrior’s game to be there. While I do love Fred Hersch, it was Julian’s name on the bill that brought me to the Herbst that evening.
Julian is a markedly prodigious talent (he started playing guitar around 4, played on the Grammy’s stage at the tender age of 8, and also starred in a documentary about himself titled Jules at Eight), but what is really special about this young guitarist is the range of styles he works within. Although often called a jazz guitarist, Julian has never been constrained to any particular genre. He’s had training from jazz legends like Jim Hall, but he has also learned from well known Spanish and bluegrass guitarists.
Julian’s past projects actually show very little particular allegiance to jazz or any genre at all. On his 2015 solo acoustic album, World’s Fair, Julian plays beautiful original pieces that bring to mind the playing of Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucía as well as Joe Pass on certain tracks. One of my favorite tracks on that album, “Ryland,” Julian’s tribute to the legend Ry Cooder, also shows up on Arclight.
Julian has also released two albums with Chris Eldridge, the bluegrass guitar player of the Punch Brothers, and has toured extensively with Eldridge. Julian also collaborated with Nels Cline on a jaw-dropingly, beautiful album, Room. Room’s starkness highlights both guitarists’ ability to listen as well as Nels Cline’s creativity as a composer. The album is aptly named for the well timed rests and eery pauses that show listeners that great musicians know exactly when to create silence together and when to fill it in.
Within his own music, Julian happily lets elements of multiple genres sink into his guitar playing. This is what makes Julian’s jazz guitar sound different. This is perhaps most notable on Arclight, Julian’s 2016 album from Mack Avenue Records. Arclight is an exciting mix of original pieces and new takes on lesser known Great American Songbook standards from the pre-bebop era. Arclight presents itself as a jazz album with classic jazz instrumentation: Julian on a full body telecaster style electric guitar (the guitar is not so classic jazz), Scott Colley on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. The trio delves into standards like Spike Hughes’ “Nocturne” with beautiful clarity, highlighting the unique minor note the song starts on by continuing it throughout. This was actually the principal idea that led Julian to chose the standards he covers on the album: an interest in pre-bebop tunes that start on a minor note. Such tunes were not exactly common during the era because most jazz tunes were meant to be dance music. While the trio undeniably pulls off a beautiful jazz album, Julian’s guitar often takes risks stylistically bringing the album into twang-ier, rock and roll territory (he is on the tele after all). He does this to great success (I think) on tracks like “Fortune Teller” and “Supera” and “Activate.”
So, yes, I was going to see Julian play guitar, and play guitar he did! Fred Hersch and Julian actually released an album together in 2015 called Free Flying. Julian plays a Linda Manzer Blue Note on the album. I’ve listened to the album a few times, and I enjoy it; however, Julian’s guitar playing doesn’t always come through very strong on it. I’m not sure if it has to do with how the album was recorded or if it was the intention of the musicians at the time. I think Fred Hersch is an astonishing piano player, so melodic, but often times his playing is a little too classical and straight laced for me. I was hoping that live Julian’s twangin’ and creative guitar playing would come through and maybe even liven up Hersch’s playing. This seemed to be exactly what occurred. Julian and Fred Hersch played an absolutely gorgeous, rocking, creative, cool set. Always in perfect time with one another, it was abundantly clear to all that the duo had been playing together for a long time. Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice” which is on Free Flying was a highlight. It sounded wilder and cooler live, with a few incredible guitar solos on the Blue Note.
Fred Hersch closed the show by himself with a heartbreaking rendition of “For No One” that nearly brought me to tears.