Julian Lage’s debut solo album, “World’s Fair,” released on Feb. 3, explores the broad musical potential of the guitar. At the age of 27, Lage has already been playing for over two decades. He has worked extensively with jazz masters Gary Burton and Jim Hall, bluegrass picker Chris Eldridge, and experimental rocker Nels Cline, and has even led his own group to a Grammy-nominated debut album, “Sounding Point.” From these many years of collaboration, Lage has developed an especially personal approach to the guitar, and is known for employing its unique sound elegantly in any musical context — in this album alone, Lage demonstrates facility in styles ranging from classical to bluegrass.
Over the course of 12 tracks, all uncut solo performances, Lage applies his technical mastery to create a cohesive yet diverse set of music. The titles of his songs — like “Peru,” “Missouri,” “Century” and “Day and Age” — convey different times and places, appropriately evoking the wonder and variety of a world’s fair. His compositions contains elements of elaborate jazz harmony, speedy bluegrass picking, classical counterpoint and simple folk musicality.
The first single released in advance of the album’s release, “40’s,” is a gentle tune that makes full use of the guitar’s rich lower register with open string voicings. “Japan” opens with an angular, almost discordant sound, but enters into a laid back groove, occasionally interrupted by unsettled harmonies.
“Gardens,” highlighted by rapid picking and ringing chords, showcases Lage’s masterful control of his instrument. Exploring the orchestral potential of the guitar with the technical virtuosity of a bluegrass fiddler, Lage sounds like a flatpicking Andrés Segovia — the godfather of classical guitar whose orchestral arrangements Lage attributes as an inspiration for the album.
Other songs, like “Ryland,” based on classic doo wop changes, and the finale “Lullaby,” a sparse composition whose melody is reminiscent of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” highlight the beauty of simplicity by employing ample space between notes and uncomplicated harmony.
Fans of Lage’s more experimental work, like his recent album with Nels Cline, “ROOM,” may be disappointed to find that “World’s Fair” lacks the abstract sophistication found in many works of contemporary jazz. But it’s fairly clear that Lage was not writing to push musical boundaries, but rather to pay homage to the diverse range of music that has shaped his own playing and taste. With extraordinary technical skill, Lage has crafted 12 heartfelt tracks that are accessible to any listener in their simplicity, yet are complex enough to engage the experienced ear with their masterful execution.
Above all, this album maintains a sense of warmth that conveys the personal nature of Lage’s playing. Listening closely, it feels as if Lage is sitting in your living room, playing for you, alone. Perhaps, this intimacy is not intended for us; perhaps we are not the audience Lage had in mind while writing and recording. If anything, this album was written for the guitar itself, in tribute to a very special instrument.
“World’s Fair” is available now on iTunes, Spotify and Bandcamp.
Contact Benjamin Sorensen at bcsoren ‘at’ stanford.edu.