The Kennedy Center

Julian Lage


At age 28, Julian Lage already boasts a resume that an artist twice his age would be proud to claim. A former child prodigy, the California-born, now New York-based guitarist has collaborated with such giants as Gary Burton, Jim Hall, David Grisman, Béla Fleck, John Zorn, and Nels Cline, among others. Lage has long been heralded for his virtuosic ability as an acoustic guitarist. In fact, he was well known in musician circles as a guitar prodigy, whose early genius was captured in a 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary short, Jules at 8. As an adult, he has fulfilled the promise of his extraordinary youthful talent. The New Yorker's Alec Wilkinson declared, "He is in the highest category of improvising musicians, those who can enact thoughts and impulses as they receive them." Nate Chinen of The New York Times called Lage "one of jazz's breezier virtuosos, possessed of an unflappable technical facility and a seemingly boundless curiosity." After independently releasing a solo acoustic set of largely original material in 2014 called World's Fair, that curiosity prompted Lage to reconsider the electric guitar, specifically a Fender Telecaster-"the most refined embodiment of the modern guitar," as he puts it.

Though up to now Lage has largely recorded and performed original material, he wanted to explore his interpretive skills on Arclight, concentrating on music from the early to mid-20th century, "jazz before be-bop." This was a period that had also inspired his composing for World's Fair. As he did then, Lage consulted Brooklyn-based guitarist, banjo player, and music scholar Matt Munestiri, who had already pored over the more obscure pages of the American Songbook. Lage explains, "I had this conundrum. I was looking for minor songs and slightly more melancholy music from the 1920s. Matt sent me about 20 songs that ranged from Willard Robison to Sidney Bechet to Jack Teagarden, Bix Biederbecke, and Spike Hughes, a British band leader who had a recording of a song called ‘Nocturne' that ended up on our record. He nailed this melancholy zone of jazz that I felt was kind of forgotten. It was really poignant, melodic music that had a quirk to it. I think of it as the pre-be-bop generation, when country music and jazz and swing were in this weird wild-west period."

Setting anchor in New York, says Lage, has afforded him the freedom to pursue his music in multiple directions simultaneously. "There's a camaraderie here and it takes the pressure off of you," he says. "People here are open-minded, very forward- thinking. So even if you say, ‘Hey, I'm a jazz guitar player but I like to play country music too,' they say, ‘Cool, go for it!' I've always felt privileged to be able to do this, and I still feel that way."
Julian Lage