At the heart of a collaboration that unites two acclaimed guitarists from distinct and seemingly opposing musical communities is a simple component.
It is flexible enough to provide common ground between stylistic differences: jazz for one, bluegrass for the other. Yet it is also durable enough for Julian Lage (recognized as a prodigy even before his tenure with jazz vets Gary Burton, Fred Hersch and Jim Hall) and Chris “Critter” Eldridge (picker for the genre-hopping Punch Brothers with an extensive bluegrass pedigree to find time to collaborate outside their own full and separate careers.
The unifying factor? Simple: friendship.
“As long as Jules and I continue to have this wonderful relationship, which I totally anticipate being the case, I think there will also be reason to do this project,” Eldridge said. “That’s one thing I really value about what we’re doing. I take it really seriously as a musical project and I’m very proud of it — as proud as I am of anything else. But at the same time, it’s equally important to me because Jules is my good friend.”
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The guitar has a rich lineage where it fits into so many kinds of music. That was a gateway for us ... we’re guitar nerds, basically, at the end of the day.
“Probably the most important thing about this project is just the friendship,” Lage said. “It’s the desire just to work on stuff and feel as strong and supportive about it as possible. The music is pretty indicative of that. But I think it also goes into a personal realm. It’s something that I certainly cherish a lot, as I think Critter does.”
Lage and Eldridge came together when both were New Yorkers. Lage was invited to a Punch Brothers concert to discuss band founder Chris Thile’s work on a solo album by the former. Backstage, he met Eldridge. Then the guitars came out.
“So as two guitar players tend to do, I said, ‘Let’s play something while we’re waiting here,’” Lage said. “So it was such a neat connection that we left with, ‘We should do this again.’ Of course, our careers took to us to different things, so it wasn’t like we were able to jump back into it right away. But every few months we would revisit the idea again and say, ‘We should do a record.’ Then we would go away for six months or whatever. So eventually, Chris just said, ‘Look, are we going to do this or not? If we are, we’ve got to put it on the calendar and jump in.’ And that’s what we did.”
First up was an August 2013 recording titled Close to Picture, self-described as “an EP of original music … and a fiddle tune.” As an introduction to the duo, the music fell somewhere between the more progressive side of Tony Rice’s early albums and the lighter, rootsier playing of pioneers like Norman Blake. In October 2014, a full debut album, Avalon, was released. Produced by Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids, the record largely eschews original material for a cornucopia of song traditions — Blake’s Ginseng Sullivan, the George and Ira Gershwin standard Someone to Watch Over Me (with Eldridge adding vocals), Jimmie Rodgers’ vintage country yarn Any Old Time and the traditional spiritual Open Up the Window, Noah. The sound is undeniably homey, though, as Pattengale chose to record the duo onstage at the 1920s-era Avalon Theatre (sans audience) in Easton, Md.
“Jules and I were exploring and trying to push ourselves, to see what two guitars could do together,” Eldridge said. “We were just trying stuff that we hadn’t necessarily tried before. Following the EP, we thought, ‘Great, our next record will build on that. Kenneth saw us play out at Wintergrass, an acoustic music festival out in Seattle a few years ago. He came to us and said, ‘I want to record you guys and I’ve got an idea. I just want to document what you do, because it’s cool and I think it would be worthy.’ I don’t think that we would have ever made that record if it hadn’t been for Kenneth.”
Said Lage: “There is a shared willingness, an extreme curiosity, that we share about the instrument, the architecture of this music and what it means for us to kind of define this music in a way that makes sense to us since we are the product of many great generations of musicians.
“We also just wanted to just acknowledge the guitar. The guitar has a rich lineage where it fits into so many kinds of music. That was a gateway for us. The voice on the guitar, it can be at home in so many places and so many scenarios. So definitely with Avalon, we took advantage of that. Then again, we’re guitar nerds.”
If you go
Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge
When: 8 p.m. March 25
Where: Weisiger Theatre in Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut
Tickets: $38, $49
Call: 877-448-7469, 859-236-4692