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Guitarists Chris Eldridge, Julian Lage Explore Sonic Sweet Spots

Chris Eldridge is bluegrass-guitar royalty, a founding member of both the Infamous Stringdusters and the Punch Brothers and a first-call sideman for the likes of T-Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello. At 26, Julian Lage is already one of the hottest jazz guitarists around, a former child prodigy with two albums as a leader, critically acclaimed duo recordings with both guitarist Nels Cline and pianist Fred Hersch and steady membership in vibraphonist Gary Burton's New Quartet. Put Eldridge and Lage together, give 'em each a late-'30s Martin acoustic, and watch the sparks fly.

Lage met Eldridge backstage at a Punch Brothers gig five years ago. "We immediately started playing together," Lage told CTNow by phone from his home in New York. "It was a love-at-first-sight experience. We played maybe one song, and we both walked away saying, 'Who the hell is this guy?'"

Two years later, Eldridge and Lage recorded an instrumental EP together, "Closer to Picture," which features four tightly wound Americana-flavored compositions for two interlocking guitars, with embedded passages of improvisation and formal designs straddling classic song forms, jazz head-solo-head arrangements and through-composed rhapsodies. Each lyrical piece — the moody "Boca Grande," for example, or the shimmering Western swing of "At the Meeting House" — tell a complete story, decked out with tangents and unexpected developments, until the musical resources are close to exhausted. Stacked, ringing arpeggios sometimes suggest minimalism, other times Pat Metheny-ish jazz or lush Appalachian harmonies. The two players achieve a sound akin to a tiny orchestra of 12 strings working together.

The most obvious difference between the two players, Lage said, has to do with Eldridge's bluegrass past and Lage's own jazz background. Where they intersect, Lage said, is through a shared obsession with acoustic instruments, specifically pre-WWII Martins. Eldridge plays a 1939 Martin, and Lage owns a 1937. "It's considered a sweet-spot era," Lage said. "Nowadays, guitars are so strong, and that's fine. But there's a sweetness to things that are not strong, that are more fragile." Lage said many of those Martins were built just on the verge of being too delicate, but the ones that survived got stronger with age.

"Chemically they've just fossilized," Lage said. "You want a guitar that's been beat up for 70 years and somehow survived… They have all these techniques for making new guitars sound like that, and they're fine. But you can tell when a guitar has been loved and played."

Eldridge's deep interest in harmony and voice-leading, Lage said, is almost classical in nature; he plays multiple contrary melodies at once, which intersect to sound chords. It's an approach that Lage has picked up on and incorporated into his own playing. "The funny thing about two guitars: so often you're the only guitar player in a group," he said. "Part of [playing with Eldridge] is like looking into a mirror: We both come from bands that are used to creating a big sonic footprint, where you make a lot of sound. One of the things we're encountering is recognizing that with two guitars, it can feel gigantic with considerably less sound coming off the stage."

Another thing about the project that attracts Lage: portability. "Chris is more used to that feeling," he said. "For me, it's never been like that. It's always piano-bass-percussion… I always had a hankering for a band that could just show up at a radio station and play. There's a connection to the audience, whether there's a microphone or no microphone. It feels like you're fighting the good fight. There's nothing blocking you."

Lage and Eldridge play two shows in our area, the first at Bridge Street Live in Collinsville on Friday, April 11, at 8 p.m. and again on Sunday, April 13, at 4 p.m. at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Art Center in Old Saybrook. They're also gearing up to record a new EP featuring Eldridge's vocals.

"He's a brilliant singer," Lage said. "He grew up singing, and somehow this orchestration of two guitars is really appropriate."

JULIAN LAGE AND CHRIS ELDRIDGE perform on Friday, April 11, at Bridge Street Live in Collinsville. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $22-$32. Information: 41bridgestreet.com.

They'll also perform on Sunday, April 13,  at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Art Center in Old Saybrook. Showtime is 4 p.m. Tickets are $25. Information: katharinehepburntheater.org.

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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