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Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
Julian Lage is the sort of musician who makes every gesture feel both easeful and essential. A guitarist who came up in the spotlight, first as a prodigy and then as an apprentice, he's now 30, a seasoned hand. And you could argue that he's accessing ever deeper levels of artistry with his music, forging ahead while remaining true to himself.
Exhibit A for that argument would be his expressive, smartly focused album Modern Lore — a showcase for Lage's working trio, with Scott Colley on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums.
This is the second such album, following Arclight in 2016. But where that studio release carried an implicit agenda — establishing Lage's foothold as a bandleader, highlighting the catholicity of his tastes — this one feels loose and unburdened. It's the strongest album of Lage's career so far, and the first that fully captures his trademark melding of fleet precision, open-road possibility and radiant self-assurance.
If that sounds like a distinctly American set of qualities, so be it: Lage is a distinctly American sort of artist. His musical persona draws from the expansive jazz continuum (ragtime to bebop and beyond) as well as rustic folk music and the blues. And because this trio features him on a Fender Telecaster, the countrified side of his playing often shines through — not only on the cowpoke saunter of "Atlantic Limited" but also on a medium-bright swinger like "Look Book."
Like its precursor, Modern Lore was produced by Jesse Harris, the singer-songwriter best known for his work with Norah Jones. Harris knows how to pare down to an essence, and it's clear that he put the band at ease. (He also plays some acoustic guitar, on "Whatever You Say, Henry.") Throughout the album, additional atmosphere is furnished by keyboardist Tyler Chester, of the Blake Mills Trio; you feel him more than you hear him, which seems to be the point.
And while Lage's poise and proficiency are on full display, it's in an almost unassuming fashion. That's in keeping with the influence of Jim Hall, a master jazz guitarist who employed Colley and Wollesen in one of his own late trios, and gave Lage his coveted blessing. (Don't be surprised if you hear fleeting echoes of Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny, who had a similar relationship to Hall.)
Even when the trio lunges into melodic abstraction, à la Ornette Coleman, on "Earth Science," there's a feeling of terra firma underfoot. And what follows is the loveliest of closers, a ballad called "Pantheon" that places Lage in a lineage of gifted storytellers.
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