There are so many jazz guitarists out there; unfortunately, many sound the same. Wes Montgomery achieved legendary status through his clean tone and silvery-smooth octave shifts, creating plenty of disciples who are reluctant to change a winning formula. So what can aspiring jazz guitarists do to stand out? One solution is for them to change their sound. There are many variables to experiment with on this end, including playing a different guitar, plugging it into another amp, and routing it through various effects along the way.
Another option that is less concrete but still comes with noticeable results is to alter the style of jazz one is playing. It is rare when a guitarist clings to the retro sounds of Montgomery, Charlie Christian, and Tal Farlow while taking their musical style way beyond mid-century bop. Julian Lage is one of these musicians, a guitarist who, judging from his output over the last 13 years, will have a long and fruitful career of injecting old sounds with new approaches.
If one were to pin down the specifics in Lage’s sound, it has the warmth of Joe Pass, the bite of Les Paul, and the dexterity of both. When it comes to the music he plays and the arrangements with which he surrounds his guitar, Lage is his own man, though his new album View With a Room proves that having the right help is always nice. If specific passages sound like they’re borrowed from Bill Frisell or the Bad Plus, that’s because Frisell appears on guitar, while Dave King keeps the beat. Jorge Roeder rounds out the group, creating a highly unique quartet capable of handling plenty of stylistic offshoots offered by contemporary jazz. If there’s one complaint I have of View With a Room, it’s that the band can only show so much versatility in ten songs spanning 43 minutes.
There aren’t many “singles” to speak of in jazz these days, but Lage has chosen to highlight the song “Auditorium” as one, a subtle number that sews the Appalachian with the metropolitan. It is possible to discern one guitar player from another. But when Lage and Frisell are playing counter-melodies simultaneously, as they do on “Auditorium”, their styles can sometimes mesh into one. Whether by design or by accident, it creates an atmosphere free of ego. “Chavez” probably put King into familiar territory, setting the song to a more straight-ahead, forsaking the swing. “Chavez” is also one of those tracks where there is more of a “lead” vs. “rhythm” demarcation for the two electric guitars.
View With a Room is packed tight with passages of great musical depth, coming in various tempos and moods. The gospel-flavored “Let Every Room Sing” sounds like it could be on any number of Frisell’s more pastoral albums with the delicate rubato and glimmering harmonics. “Echo” is even sparser, reducing the combo’s sound to a mist with just a faint whiff of jazz in the air. “Word for Word”, View With a Room‘s other featured single, passes for laid-back blues at first, until you realize that it isn’t. The combination of rapidly plucked single-note lines with the easy-shifting of chords is the stuff of guitarist envy, but Lage never overplays his hand. When the quartet decide to lay low and play some old-fashioned bop with a swing to “Castle Park”, they go with plenty of dynamic control in tow.
The finest is saved for last with “Fairbanks”, a bright sky pop shuffle that rides over a simple two-chord figure. The melody will sit slightly askew the first time you try to trace it, but it soon nestles into its own magical spot on repeated plays. At three minutes and 55 seconds, it’s over all too quickly. At 43 minutes, View With a Room feels like it’s just starting to explore the quartet’s possibilities. Frisell has played with other guitarists before, but this is the first time I’ve heard him so thoroughly fold himself into another guitar player’s sound. There’s more here that we aren’t hearing yet.