Approaching the expansive music of guitarist Julian Lage brings to mind the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The music will be different depending on where you encounter it, but it’s all a part of the same being. On Wednesday, Nov. 4, Lage and equally versatile guitarist Chris Eldridge will sit down at the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio for a four-night stay.
Lage, a 27-year-old Santa Rosa native, came up as a jazz guitar prodigy under the tutelage of Randy Vincent. He was classically trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and has been a faculty member at the Stanford Jazz Workshop since he was 15. He studied at Sonoma State University and Ali Akbar College of Music and graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 2008.
He has played with the legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton, pianist Fred Hersch, drummer Eric Harland and the late guitarist Jim Hall, so identifying him as a mainstream jazz musician seems obvious. But he also plays in a duo with unclassifiable Nels Cline on an album called “Room,” and that music travels from abstract avant garde to achingly beautiful melodic acoustic ballads.
The duo with Eldridge shows yet another side of Lage. Eldridge is known for playing at the highest levels of progressive bluegrass with bands the Seldom Scene and the Infamous Stringdusters. Eldridge, known as Critter to his fans and associates, is also member of the Punch Brothers. The music that Eldridge and Lage perform together is rooted in the richness of the Martin guitars they each play and the breadth of American music they both love.
Lage spoke on the phone from a car in the Midwest as he and Cline were in the a midst of short tour together before he joins forces with Eldridge.
“I love duos,” Lage said. “Playing solo is 100 percent music, and with a duo you’ve doubled your orchestra. The duos I have I love because they’re with people I love – like Fred (Hersch) and Nels, Critter (Chris Eldridge). I would hang out with them either way, and if we get to play on top of it, all the better.”
Lage and Eldridge mine a vein of music on their album “Avalon” that could be broadly called Americana with songs by Jimmie Rodgers (“Any Old Time”), bluegrass legend Norman Blake (“Ginseng Sullivan”), and George and Ira Gershwin (“Someone To Watch Over Me”), with Eldridge contributing his plaintive, unaffected vocals to several of the songs. There are also three Lage originals: “Wilson’s Waltz,” “Steady Proof” and “Stone Cross.”
The idea of having a multifaceted musical life came to Lage, he said, through the example of musicians who mentored him early on:
“Just being around people like (David) Grisman or Gary Burton or Fred Hersch, Béla Fleck, these kind of people have such robust and interesting careers. That’s when you start thinking, ‘Whoa, I could see myself in this,’ I can envision it for myself because I see right in front of me with these masters.”
Lage said the idea of the Great American Songbook and what it is today resonate through the music he and Eldridge play together. The rich tapestry of music popular in the 1940s had its roots even earlier – at the turn of the 20th century, when jazz and popular music genres were in more formative stages. He and Eldridge pull from all of it.
“The Great American Songbook was on a parallel track to the evolution of bluegrass, modern country music, and obviously the blues,” Lage said.
“Guys like Hoagy Carmichael were writing these songs that were jazz, but they were also country songs, they were love songs, they were weirdo guitar songs. Today we’re also at the turn of the century, and so similar things are up for grabs: the way the guitar is played, the songs that are played on it, and it is all very American in a lot of ways – not that it’s not occurring elsewhere, because it absolutely is, but the music I’m associated with right now is the modern American songbook.”
For Lage and Eldridge and the audiences who come to see them, the four-night stay at Mondavi will be a luxury.
“We have basically a new record’s worth of music that we’re in the process of finishing writing, so our stay at the Mondavi will represent the first time we can really try this music in front of an audience in addition to the music we’ve already recorded.”
Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge
What: Two guitarists offer a modern improvisational look at American standards from jazz, bluegrass, country and the new American Songbook
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 4-7
Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Mondavi Center, One Shields Ave., Davis
Information: (866)754-2787 or www.mondaviarts.org