May 18, 2024

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CD review: Julian Lage – The Layers 2023: Video, CD cover

Achildhood prodigy who played the Grammys at age 12, Julian Lage has evolved into the most admired jazz guitarist of his generation.

This third album for Blue Note is drawn from the same sessions as last year’s feted View With a Room, again featuring his regular sidekicks, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King, with veteran guitarist Bill Frisell as special guest. Once again produced by Margaret Glaspy (a singer-songwriter who is also Lage’s wife), the album is a companion piece to View, or, as Lage has it, “a prequel, it has all the musical seeds that grew into View but it has a heartbeat of its own”.

While possessing the same entrancing quality as its predecessor, The Layers is still sparser, with few of the Americana flavours that the much-travelled Frisell previously helped bring, and with half of its six tracks delivered on acoustic guitar. Lage is a masterful player, alternating careful, detailed lines with bursts of dexterous improvisation, and Roeder in particular proves a splendid foil, not least on the title track. Frisell, a fellow fretboard technician, brings intricate harmonic touches to the otherworldly Missing Voices. Like View, The Layers proves a captivating creation, but at under 30 minutes seems a little frugal by comparison.

Julian Lage’s The Layers is a direct companion piece to its 2022 predecessor View With A Room. In fact, the guitarist/composer himself describes the six original pieces as a prequel to last year’s release: recorded during the same sessions, the half dozen tracks functioned as the means by which the identical cast of musicians, producer, and engineer explored the possibilities of their collaboration.

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Produced by Margaret Glaspy and recorded by Mark Goodell (with additional production by Armand Hirsch), Lage is again augmenting his well-honed trio of himself on guitar, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King with fellow guitarist Bill Frisell. And like the previous LP, the musicians appear in varying lineups: “Double Southpaw” and “This World” are both duets, the former featuring the bandleader and bassist, the second consisting of the two fretboarders.

And those cuts are key to the primary distinction between the two Lage albums. Fittingly, the title track is also arranged for two acoustic guitars plus double bass and drums: the quartet concludes this roughly twenty-five minutes duration with exploratory testing of each other’s skills and instincts. There’s a palpable and potent chemistry between Lage, Frisell, Roeder and King, one the foursome utilizes to judicious and purposeful effect.

The depth of musical curiosity so evident in The Layers also belies its abbreviated playing time. As is also the case with the record as a whole, the reverie of the opening number, “Everything Helps,” sounds like it might well have made an enlightening insertion on the prior effort. And it certainly begs the question of why all sixteen recordings weren’t sequenced together into a more expansive offering with a running time of some seventy minutes.

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Such a configuration would readily fit on a single compact disc, but would most likely become a marketing liability (that duration would require more than a double set of vinyl). That said, such an expanded configuration would also preclude the readily-discernible continuity of The Layers. The dream-like atmosphere that pervades “Missing Voices” only reaffirms how Julian Lage’s accompanists–even his most famous one– defer to the tone he sets.

On that track, guitars probe and recede as the rhythm section ebbs and flows, the patterns remarkably authoritative given the relaxed tenor of the interactions. Clearly, the quartet is in no hurry to fulfill its potential but instead, quietly and patiently ventures into four-way dialogues such as “This World.” All this occurs in addition to what is probably the inevitable entry titled “Mantra:” this contemplative piece may, in fact, represent the point these musicians comprehended their bond.

This record might well have been called Meditations, but that would’ve conjured up pretensions of which this deceptively off-the-cuff album is completely bereft. On the contrary, the deceptively informal, nuanced content wholly deserves its actual title of The Layers.

1 Everything Helps 04:12
2 Double Southpaw 03:02
3 Missing Voices 05:34
4 This World 04:19
5 Mantra 04:01
6 The Layers 03:43

Julian Lage: Guitar
Dave King: Drums
Jorge Roeder: Bass

Julian Lage - The Layers – Blue Note Records

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