March 18, 2019. Guitarist Julian Lage is only 31, but he packs over a half-century’s worth of cultural touchstones into his latest album, Love Hurts. Which might seem ironic, since the only opinion that seems unanimous about Lage’s brand of contemporary jazz is that it’s contemporary—genre-wise, it’s harder to place.
Lage’s musical influences are expansive; this album has data points of influence all over the musical universe. Which may be the only way to be truly contemporary. To actually contribute something new, you need to know your history with both depth and breadth. Lage does.
That’s the only way to make an album that doffs a cap to Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett and Tommy Dorsey while simultaneously winking at rockabilly icons like the Everly Brothers, Chris Isaak, and Roy Orbison.
Leading off is “In Heaven,” a tune written for Eraserhead, the film that made surrealist filmmaker David Lynch a favorite among film cognoscenti. Lage’s take is decidedly Lynchian, a surrealist febrile hallucination evoking the sub-textual melancholy of 1950s Americana, whose closest analog might be Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” which just so happened to serve as the theme for Lynch’s Wild at Heart.
Isaak, clearly a Lage influencer, has been called The Roy Orbison of the 90s. Have a guess at which sensitive, bouffant-ed, black-clad rocker Lage decided to cover for Love Hurts' final track? You got it—The Big O!
With “Crying,” a hit ballad for Orbison in 1961, Lage is faithful to the lachrymose mood of the original, though the refurbished version here is just the right amount of contemporary for heartbreak in today’s West Texas. Is it too late to shoehorn this tune into an old episode of Friday Night Lights?
The second cut, a take on Ornette Coleman’s “Tomorrow is the Question,” is another story entirely, as Jorge Raeder (bass), Dave King (drums), and Lage switch gears seamlessly and find themselves exploring the outer-reaches of jazz improvisation as Coleman once dared.
And that’s the genius of this album: Lage’s ability to nimbly transport the listener from the forlorn nostalgia of Roy Orbison’s West Texas of football, oil, grease, and sand, to the cosmopolitan environs of The Five Spot, where Ornette once headlined jazz’s improvisational avant-garde.
But it’s not always one or the other.
Lage beautifully splits the difference with his take on the standard “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” where he plays with that nice, round tone we associate with the quintessential jazz guitar sound.
Also not to be missed: Lage’s take on Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup,” where the shape-shifting Lage channels the unmistakable sound of the late Larry Coryell so accurately and completely that it might just freak you out a little.
Matt Silver is a writer, radio host, recovering J.D., and jazz fanatic whose own saxophone playing can most aptly be described as somewhere between not altogether hopeless and delightfully adequate. He lives and works in Philadelphia.