One of the most direct methods of music discovery – aside from recommendations of friends – is listening to a great recording and looking for recordings from people on that record whose playing you enjoyed. In my recent review of Gary Burton’s Common Ground, I highlighted guitarist Julian Lage. I quickly discovered that Lage had just released his second album at the end of April … so I headed back to iTunes and added another chunk of music to my iCloud!
Summary: If you watch the first video I included, you will hear Julian speak of the band coming up with the concept of basing the album around the fictitious small town center of the formerly bustling but now dead Gladwell, and musically taking a tour around the town. This makes Gladwell a ‘concept’ album in the same vein as Days of Future Passed (Moody Blues) or Sgt. Pepper (The Beatles) or Sell Out (The Who), and similar to those records each song has a different ‘place’ it takes you. You start with 233 Butler, then meet Margaret, stop at the Freight Train, Telegram, and so on. It is a wonderful construct – and it words as a unifying precept for composition and improvisation.
The compositions are primarily from Lage, with three of the dozen tracks coming from others: ‘However’ from saxophonist Dan Blake, the classic ‘Freight Train’ from guitarist Elizabeth Cotten, and the standard ‘Autumn Leaves’. The latter two might seem thematically out of place on a concept album, but as the musical goal suggests a look back from modern day to times gone by, those songs actually fit perfectly – particularly as reinterpreted by Lage and his band.
The band has a rather unique composition, featuring predominantly stringed instruments: Lage on Guitar, Aristides Rivas on cello, Jorge Roeder on bass, Blake on tenor sax, and drummer Tupac Mantilla. This grouping features instruments that are harmonically centered in the musical spectrum, but that can range higher and lower as needed, but without a true soprano voicing. This allows considerable flexibility but forces everyone to work harder to respect the harmonic space and also means there is no singular lead voice. For me this is one of the album’s strengths – certainly it is clear that Lage is the leader and dominant impetus, but his leadership enhances the contribution of others rather than drowning them out.
Musically it is simple and easy to categorize this as jazz – the instrumentation is correct, there are melodies with extensive improvisation, the songs certainly swing, and so on. But calling it jazz – particularly in the context of an all-acoustic set of instruments, belies the truly modern sounds and genre-bending styles at play. There is jazz to be sure, but there is also a clear rock and pop influence, and also a classical element in the way the compositions evolve and are presented.
Gladwell has it all – great compositions, solid playing at all times by all band members, and a high-functioning band that obviously loves playing together as they have a deeply intuitive sense of communication. But most of all it is a joyous and uplifting experience that is just plain fun to listen to in any context. Julian Lage has already grabbed loads of attention as a phenomenal young guitarist, but by now that is transitioning into an appreciation of a fine and maturing composer and artist.
Choice Track (and why): This is cheating, but I would highlight both ‘233 Butler’ and ‘Freight Train’ – ‘233 Butler’ really kicks the recording off in style, showing Lage’s playing and compositional style as well as the intuitive communication between the band. ‘Freight Train’ is such a beautiful song, written in ~1906 by the overlooked and nearly forgotten pioneer Elizabeth Cotten when she was only 11 years old. The way Lage and the band reinterpret it and make it thoroughly modern only enhanced the simple joys of the original song, making this perhaps my favorite version.
You Might Love This If: If you liked the Gary Burton recording you will love this recording. Also, if you are a fan of the less electric stylings of Pat Metheny you will definitely love this. Julian Lage presents a style of jazz that is classic and modern all at once.
Where to Buy: iTunes Music Store – $9.99
Here is a video of Julian Lage discussing the experience of creating this recording:
And Here is Lage doing a solo version of 233 Butler from Gladwell