Since Julian Lage left the Bay Area in his mid-teens to seek his musical fortune on the East Coast, the guitarist has carved out a singularly dazzling career. As a bandleader and muse to much older masters such as Charles Lloyd, John Zorn, Bill Frisell, and Nels Cline, the 36-year-old Lage has met each musical moment with the preternatural poise and lyrical fluency that made him such as standout talent as a kid.
On Thursday, during the opening concert in his four-night run as a resident artistic director for SFJAZZ, he described the show as a homecoming, and it felt like he showed up at the front door with nothing but his guitar and stories to tell. Performing a rare solo recital on acoustic guitar, he opened and closed the concert with pieces drawn from his sublime 2015 solo acoustic album World’s Fair, starting with extended versions of the episodic flat-picking adventure “Gardens” and “Day and Age,” which has evolved over the years from a moseying cowboy lament into an epic, bounding sojourn across the prairie.
Watching Lage perform is fascinating in that he often makes outlandishly intricate passages look effortless while rendering simple lines laden with willful effort, gathering himself in the silent pauses before plunging ahead. When it comes to balladry, there’s simply no guitarist with a more lyrical sensibility. He evoked John Coltrane’s classic recording of “Say It (Over and Over Again),” shaping each phrase with Frank Sinatra panache. But for me the highlights of the concert were Lage’s mesmerizing distillation of Ornette Coleman’s “Chanting” and his earthy yet ethereal flight through Charles Lloyd’s “Island Blues.”
On his own piece “Etude,” a mostly through-composed track from his 2021 trio album Squint, Lage struggled for a moment to remember an early phrase, repeated the line, and found his way back into the flow, all without breaking the piece’s mood and momentum. Called back for an encore by the sold-out crowd — I’m watching SFJAZZ’s online broadcast of Lage’s show with his wife, singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy, with whom he performs as Rude Ruth, as I finish this review — he concluded the night with Johnny Mandel’s “Emily,” a parting gift of beauty that both rendered the caressing melody in fine strokes and abstracted the tune into something a little strange and new.