I’m still wringing major bits of pleasure out of last year’s electric Julian Lage Trio release Arclight, when here comes this splendid acoustic offering from Lage and Chris Eldridge. Mount Royal is the second full-length by this duo, following Avalon in 2014 and an EP a couple of years before that.
Mentored by the great boundary-ignorer Jim Hall, Lage has been playing and expanding the boundaries of jazz guitar since he was just a kid, with the New Gary Burton Quintet and all manner of solo and ensemble projects. “Critter” Eldridge is a similar fretboard whiz who mostly specializes in bluegrass and Americana with the Punch Brothers. The two have such similarly expansive views about and knowledge of all kinds of guitar repertoire that getting together was indeed a no-brainer. And both play beautiful-sounding Martin acoustics from the 1930s.
This album is at heart an Americana or American folk record, but it draws on all kinds of music within those traditions. It has eight originals, plus some bluegrass standbys and a couple of contemporary folk songs of interesting provenance.
For their original tunes, Lage and Eldridge used an interesting approach in the studio. They’d split up for an hour or so and come up with a handful of musical ideas, then come back together and see which ones could be worked into actual pieces of music.
“We would improvise an idea for thirty minutes, record that, and see how we could intuitively develop the material,” Lage says in the album’s promotional materials. “Then we would sleep on it and see if it worked the next day. A lot of stuff didn’t work.”
But of course a lot of it did work quite well, none better to my mind than the last track “Greener Grass,” a loping tune that should be a bluegrass standard someday. Their effortless swapping of leads is a template for the entire album, with some amazingly precise yet fluid unison playing, and one of Lage’s most jazz-style solos toward the end. (There’s also some more amazing unison picking on their cover of “Old Grimes,” a bluegrass instrumental version of an old American folk song.)
The opening tune “Bone Collector” also offers a blending of Americana, classical and jazz approaches in its propulsive and melodic framework. Check out the promotional video:
Elsewhere, the tune “Goldacre” has a definite Celtic/Appalachian feel to it, and definitely drives hard like an Irish reel. “Broadcast” has an old-time bluesy sound and some brief whispers of melodies that call to mind Elizabeth Cotton. “Henry” is a gently loping country ballad, “Rygar,” named for an ’80s video game, starts with a bluegrass lick and turns into a sunny So-Cal road trip tune. “Everything Must Go” is more complex, with shifting apparent tempos and a contrast between a pensive finger-picked melody and a more sunny flat-picked counter-melody. And the languid, pianistic waltz “Lion’s Share” has a very blue melody and explores some dissonance in the chording.
Eldridge displays his pleasant tenor on the three songs. The bluegrass gospel song “Things In Life” has some real fast picking, and one of them plays a bass line that fills in nicely for the absence of any other instruments than these two mighty guitars. It’s thrilling when Lage takes a guitar break on this one, for he obviously knows bluegrass in style and content, but as a true jazz player you never know quite which way he’s going to go. His solos aren’t predictable, except in their unpredictability.
The other two songs are “Sleeping By Myself,” an Eddie Vedder song from his Americana ukulele album. It’s fairly standard singer-songwriter fare, but Eldridge delivers it with just the right touch of emotion and restraint. He pulls out all the stops, on the other hand, for the vocal gymnastics of John Hartford’s “Mississippi Valley.” What a hoot this song is! It’s a love song to the lifestyles, people and scenery on the Mississippi, and Hartford, one of the grandsires of Americana, was intimately familiar with them as a licensed riverboat pilot himself.
The three songs add some leavening to this mostly instrumental outing, which should make it more accessible to a wider audience. And the playing styles, tempos and genres are varied enough to keep this from being an album of interest only to guitar students.
Do check out their website, where you can learn a lot more, listen to some tracks and see more video. Lage and Eldridge are touring extensively behind this album, including a bunch of dates with Aoife O’Donovan, so also check out their tour page.
(Free Dirt, 2017)