Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge

Mount Royal
(Free Dirt)

They come from different backgrounds, Julian Lage having established himself in jazz and Chris Eldridge in progressive acoustic music. Their identity as a duo centers somewhere between these two poles, perhaps a little closer to Eldridge’s, with chords that range from folky triads to richer, but by no means edgy, extremes. Solos draw less from bop than Doc Watson, laced with licks that bluegrass pickers already know well.

That said, the beauty of Mount Royal rests in that place where complexity masquerades as accessibility. Check out Lage’s and Eldridge’s treatment of “Living In The Mississippi Valley”: The opening motif recalls the fiddle harmonies of composer John Hartford’s original version, but the resonance of the guitars more closely evokes the strum of an autoharp. They also track the tune’s playfully irregular phrase structures, but more smoothly than Hartford. It’s easy to imagine a roomful of dancers clogging happily and unaware that the meter changes with almost every other bar.

References to other antecedents color much of Mount Royal. The meticulously arranged yet free-flowing “Bone Collector” recalls classic Windham Hill recordings, down to the feel of the last two chords. John Fahey’s darker spirit shadows “Lion’s Share,” in its stark, slow-motion waltz time and haunting theme, built on plaintive sixths, prickly major and minor seconds and other intervals.

In the end, much of Mount Royal evokes earlier traditions—but few of those who defined those traditions could animate their essential artistry with such eloquent sophistication.