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You hear a lot about young prodigies in jazz. That's understandable: Jazz prizes skill, and any teenager who can tear it up like the big boys and girls is usually worth a smile and nod. But usually, you can safely make a note to yourself to check in about that kid in, say, 10 years. It's one thing to emulate the masters' technique. It's another to develop an original style, the way your heroes did.
Guitarist Julian Lage, 23, was once called a prodigy. He was a cute kid, true. But lately, he's also been playing in bands of master musicians — among them Gary Burton, Eric Harland and Mark O'Connor. There's also the matter of Lage's distinct sound. He plays an electric guitar, which sounds almost like an acoustic, and he tends toward folky, pastoral lines, but with a bite. When Lage released his debut album two years ago, even hardened jazz cynics took notice: He had ideas, too.
When Lage recently came for a one-nighter in Washington, D.C., he brought only bassist Jorge Roeder and percussionist Tupac Mantilla. (His usual quintet is a bit unusual, adding a saxophonist and a cellist.) Collectively, the three are soft-spoken and friendly, and they're stellar musicians, too. At the NPR Music offices, they treated us to songs that haven't yet been commercially recorded — the opening tune "Welcoming Committee" and the closing untitled number, harvested from a little online experiment wherein Lage challenged himself to write a song a day for 30 days. ("The first 23 suuucked," he joked.) In between, there's the gentle whisk and country-road twang of "However," which appears on the Julian Lage Group's 2011 sophomore album, Gladwell.
The three looked intently at each other throughout this Tiny Desk Concert, with the sort of push-and-pull group interaction that brought a near-constant smile to each of their faces. There was plenty of concentration wrapped up in that, of course; before we started rolling tape, the three grabbed each other's hands in a circle for a brief moment of meditative clarity. But then they had some fun.
Filmed and edited by Michael Katzif; audio by Kevin Wait; photo by Mito Habe-Evans/NPR