Sometimes I go to a show that is wonderful. I leave feeling satisfied and happy, having seen a great night of music and spent time with friends. Other, more rare times, I leave a show remembering why music is the most important thing in my life. Friday night at Lincoln Hall became the latter.
Julian Lage is many things. As a child prodigy, he was the subject of a music documentary at age eight. At 12, he played at the 2000 Grammy Awards. His first album, Sounding Point, was nominated for a Grammy in 2010. First and foremost, he is a composer and jazz guitarist, but his music finds its way through just about every other genre as well. His music is rooted in bebop, Americana, and rock, dipping occasionally into bluegrass and folk. He has seen collaborations with jazz guitar legend Nels Cline, bluegrass-driven Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge, and many others, but his trio is where his skill for improvisation shines most brightly. Accompanied by Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Doob on drums, Lage led a captivated Lincoln Hall through a night of standards, new compositions, and impeccable covers, all full of joy.
As the trio played originals from his recent album Modern Lore, an old ballad called “The Call of the Canyon” (“I saw Frank Sinatra do this—not live.”), Ornette Coleman tunes, and a breathtakingly sweet cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” the trio’s incredible improvisational skills were highlighted. Though Roeder and Doob are not permanent fixtures in Lage’s trio, the group plays together seamlessly. As a bandleader, Lage’s energy is palpable, and both Doob and Roeder seemed to absorb this; they sent it right back to him. Like all high-level jazz musicians, each member of the trio remained completely attuned to one another for the entire 90-minute set, bouncing ideas back and forth and feeding off of each other’s energy. Lage’s playing is dynamic, ranging from lithe to frenetic in a matter of moments. He is subtle and gentle at times, raucous at others—ever tasteful. His improvising is beautifully melodic and compositional, and he’s a musician that understands the value of space. Throughout moments of their cover of “Crying,” you could—to employ the use of a cliche—practically hear a pin drop. Not a note is wasted, and it’s all done with such seeming grace and ease that you nearly forget the tremendous proficiency you’re watching. Almost.
Though Lage is a confident bandleader, he is also one without ego. He is soft spoken, humble, thanking the audience again and again in an endearing tone. He allowed Roeder and Doob their spotlights as well, breaking into extended bass solos and trading with the drums. There is a deep sense of sincerity to his music, echoed in the way he appears on stage and interacts with his bandmates. At the end of the night, they ended on a second Ornette tune, once again thanking the audience. Due to an enthusiastic demand for an encore by the rapt crowd, they returned once more to the stage to play a nearly-Hendrix style version of my personal favorite, the achingly beautiful “Ryland.” The song is simple, classic, sweet, and slow, and they stretched this closing number to its limits. Lage’s solos were understated, extending the lovely melody but staying close to home. At nearly eight minutes, they wound down to the final chord.
Like many others in the audience, I presume, I could have happily stood and listened to another hour, at least, of playing. It’s a testament to Lage and his band that no one wanted to leave, and I’m sure this is happening worldwide on his tour. Check out his new album Modern Lore and make sure to keep an eye out for his eventual return to Chicago. You won’t want to miss it.