The best of Julian Lage: Five essential albums by the prodigious guitarist

Julian Lage breathes life into music and breathes music into life.

With his guitar, he conveys a multitude of emotional expressions and levels of feeling. He’s able to articulate all of this so directly that it feels like there’s an intuitive connection between the artist, the instrument, and the listener. Perhaps there always has been.

Born in 1987, Lage is a former child prodigy who first came to prominence as a professional guitarist at the age of only eight. He performed at the Grammy Awards at age 12, and he became a faculty member of the Stanford Jazz Workshop at 15. Lage has contributed to numerous recording projects as a sideman for the likes of Gary Burton, John Zorn, Terri Lyne Carrington, Nels Cline and Charles Lloyd. In 2009, he made his debut as a leader with Sounding Point. Since then, he has recorded 11 albums full of expression and collaboration.

No matter the project, Lage’s care, respect and inspired awareness is infused in every note of every track of every album. Out of his impressively extensive body of work in just more than a decade as a leader, these five albums stand out among the best examples of Julian Lage’s artistry.

Free Flying (2013)

Fred Hersch and Julian Lage are a perfect blend on this co-led recording; it’s as if both artists are attached to their respective instruments. The tracks are all originals composed by Hersh, except for one by Thelonious Monk. The music is instantly relatable, with a certain communicative directness that’s especially captivating. There are messages in the music. The merging of artistry on Free Flying is magical; it is as if the two speak a common language.

Room (2014)

This project co-led with Nels Cline is about commonality of language and organic communication. There are few better pairings of musical messengers and creative communicators than Cline and Lage. There is a bareness to this album that makes it unique — just the two players, just the two guitars. Cline and Lage both contribute their own original compositions to this album, and the fact that they were able to weave together such a singular, consistent musical language is a testament to their intuitive senses. They have only each other for support, and it’s all they need.

Arclight (2016)

Lage’s first solo recording for Mack Avenue conjures the feeling of Americana, a word as broad in its definitions as the nation that is its namesake. The Fender Telecaster’s unique sound in the hands of Lage is an attention grabber. The sound is immediate and conscious. Arclight contains the spirit and soul of blues and R&B and the visceral emotion of country music, all of it playfully seasoned with the signature swing of a mix of jazz stylings.

Modern Lore (2018)

On Modern Lore, Lage’s playing continues to show its maturity. By this point, Lage has evolved beautifully from his early days as a child prodigy. He’s a guitar player who can jam freely with a raw, brazen sound, while also giving the music an accessible polish with sensitivity and respect for jazz’s truest roots. His trademark Telecaster sound solidifies his curatorial ability as he continues to show sensibilities of blues, folk and Americana-tinged rock. Modern Lore takes a freer approach, liberated from the boundaries of genre.

Squint (2021)

Lage’s latest recording is possibly his most personal. There’s a soul-searching quality to Squint; it sounds deeply reflective and brilliantly communicated. The album was recorded during a year that brought social inequity and revolutionary movements into newly sharpened focus, as many people desperately searched for answers, asked for understanding and demanded change — and these elements are very much at the surface on Squint. And if improvisation is your thing, this album is for you. It is an adventure in everything Lage can bring to your ears.

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