Squint is esteemed guitarist Julian Lage’s debut for Blue Note as a leader although he has appeared on the label for Nel Cline’s Lovers (2016) and Nel Cline’s 4 Currents, Constellations (2018). This writer was especially impressed by his performance on Charles Lloyd’s 8: Kindred Spirts (Live from The Lobero) (2020). Of course, Lage has a body of work that precedes this debut, notably his three trio Mack Avenue releases, of which 2019’s Love Hurts is the most recent. On that session, as he does here, he works with bassist Jorge Roeder (who also appeared on his 2019 Sounding Point) and Bad Plus drummer Dave King.
Here Lage is trying to channel the Blue Note tradition, one he describes as rich in improvisational vocabularies and performances as well as great songwriting. This trio had toured together two years prior to recording so the loose, but telepathic interplay was well in place for these mostly original pieces, the last album having been strictly covers. As we learned on that album though, and through his masterfully bluesy takes on the Lloyd album, Lage has a broad swath of influences that range from songbook standards to early rock and blues, and, as such, this album spans sensitive ballads (‘Etude’) to the frenetic, rollicking pieces (“Familiar Flower”). You may also hear some influences from Jeff Tweedy’s (Wilco) informal coaching.
The solo “Etude” begins in graceful, sensitive fashion and then kicks into a swinging groove with “Boo’s Blues,” written for Roeder and King in the tradition of bass and drum giants, to which his trio mates respond with spot-on delivery. The title track is a melding of influences that evokes the call and response of a Billy Higgins solo and the angular, jagged swing of Lennie Tristano, with King and Roeder pushing him through the changes, each stepping out to make their own statement as well. The first single, “Saint Rose,” has a slight rock vibe and a stretch of surf guitar in the mid-section. The pulsating energy of that tune melts into the quiet calm of Johnny Mercer’s “Emily,” one of only two covers.
This trio played The Village Vanguard for a six-night residency in January 2020, and originally intended to record the album shortly thereafter. The lockdown presented the opportunity to retool his new songs so that by the time he, Roeder and King finally laid down the tracks at Nashville’s Sound Emporium in August, the tunes had taken on a deeper, darker air of mystery and searching. There’s some emotional complexity which, as Lage says “allows this record to sit comfortably in the unknown.”
“Familiar Flower” has a strong pulse, and is dedicated to Charles Lloyd, who has continually impressed Lage with his performances and his writing. He says, “Charles somehow writes and arranges his songs so that the second the beat starts you know it’s his tune. His DNA is just embedded into the rhythm section. I still don’t know how he does it, but I tried to write that tune so that the tone is set before I even come in.” Deep blues and an especially climatic guitar sequence shortly after the two minute mark color “Day and Age,” reprised from Lage’s 2015 solo album World’s Fair.
“Quiet Like a Fuse” brings the kind of suspense and mystery captured in the title, becoming the epitome of Lage’s comment on “sitting comfortably in the unknown.” As one of the longer tracks at almost seven minutes, Lage’s piecing notes and cascading runs appear unpredictably from what otherwise are meandering noodles. It reads like a detective peering into crevices, delighted at some of his finds, but determined to continue the quest. “Short Form” continues with this dark air of mystery although King is much more active with his beats and skitters on the kit. They emerge from the melancholy with the rousing rockabilly twang of “Twilight Surfer,” with Lage cutting some blistering notes above the rhythm tandem’s steady drive. The album closes with “Call of the Canyon,” made famous by the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry, giving us a familiar place to land on and a cautious hope for better days ahead.
Aside from the mysterious, purposeful quality of some of the tunes, Lage and his trio prove that they can carry over the wonderful mix of pop, guitar rock, blues, and jazz into originals as well as they did with covers on their last outing. Lage is not only one of our more versatile guitarists, but his expressiveness is akin to that of the best singer-songwriters somehow. He is truly genre agnostic and revels in the freedom of his large panoramic scope.
- Jim Hynes
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