Spectre of the Band looms large in life of Julian Lage

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      It’s mostly sunny, although not without moments of off-kilter abstraction, and mostly warm, but there are points on Julian Lage’s new trio record, Modern Lore, where there’s a hint of a ghost in the background—and for me, that ghost is the voice of the Band’s tragic singer, Richard Manuel.

      Now, this might seem odd. Lage’s music is entirely instrumental, and mostly self-composed, and he’s a West Coast kid whose early education encompassed tabla lessons at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in San Rafael, California, and then a degree in guitar from Berklee College in Boston. You wouldn’t think the well-educated Lage would have much in common with the self-taught Manuel, a freakishly sad and gifted hick from the southern Ontario sticks. But the connection is there, starting with Modern Lore’s jaunty yet ever-so-slightly twisted opening track, “The Ramble”.

      Which, yes, is named after the legendary barn jams hosted by Manuel’s long-time Band-mate Levon Helm.

      “‘The Ramble’ is totally for Levon,” says Lage, reached by phone during a break in the action at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, where his trio is playing. “I don’t even know why. But living in New York, it’s not that far from where he would hold those.

      I didn’t ever go to any of them, nor did I know him, but I have the deepest and utmost respect for him and the Band.

      “In the way that Indian music is kind of inextricable from the development of melodic music—it’s ancient, it’s epic, it’s all those things—so is the Band,” the 30-year-old performer continues. “Not as old, but it’s equally as influential in terms of orchestration, or understanding what you want from a drummer in relation to a guitar player, a bass player, and a singer. Although we don’t have a singer, but that’s kind of the guitar’s role.”

      Lage’s vocal-inflected approach to melody is another hint that, despite his harmonic sophistication, he’s attracted to players and singers that are storytellers first and theorists second.

      “I am fascinated by that,” he says. “The players I respond to typically have a version of that going on. It’s more common in the blues guitar tradition than the jazz guitar tradition, as far as just outwardly emoting in this way where you’re like, ‘Someone’s singing me a song, or telling me a story.’ I’ve always loved that quality, and the electric guitar especially lends itself well to that. But my biggest reference point would probably be steel-guitar players. I don’t play any pedal steel, but I’m fascinated by [pedal-steel pioneer] Alvino Rey, and Hawaiian guitar, and even Roy Smeck. They used that vocal quality almost like a vaudevillian bit—making it sound like a voice, or whatever. But I think that’s so cool, and it’s part of the electric guitar’s history.”

      Add the Band to the limber melodies of Indian music, historical steel-guitar sounds, and the evergreen jazz eccentricities of Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, and you’ll have the building blocks of Lage’s style—not that he’s going to take too much credit for their assembly.

      “I’d like to say it’s super deliberate, and it is, to a certain degree,” he says. “But it’s also kind of all I know.”

      The Julian Lage Trio plays Performance Works on Tuesday (June 26), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.