Julian Lage at Scullers | September 17

Photo by Michael Kurgansky

I’m loath to review shows that I’ve written previews about -- after all, they put me the the position of either saying “I told you so” or apologizing for someone who didn’t live up to my own hype. But the case of Julian Lage is different. Lage’s debut solo CD, Sounding Point (Concord), was recorded in May and June of 2008, shortly after his band’s formation. They’ve been touring ever since, and their live show at Scullers was worlds different than the CD I wrote about.

Which isn’t to take anything away from the CD. The uniqueness of Lage’s conception is apparent in either case -- a jazz quartet comprising guitar, cello, bass, alto saxophone, and hand percussion is going to stand out no matter how you slice it. But Lage is intent on tinkering with form as well as content. He rarely works with standard verse-chorus-bridge song form, preferring solos, duos, trios and full-ensemble passages to move through varied sections. At Scullers, he began with short guitar intro of fluttering figures and ringing harmonics before pizzicato bass and a bowed cello line entered with the theme and then alto sax picked it up -- a seeming collective decision about where and when to move on. The substance of the music -- drawn from folk, modern classical, and bluegrass -- is carefully rehearsed written material that in concert is subject to spontaneous tinkering, as the band decide where and when to sustain a passage of move on to a new section. This isn’t a simple matter of “how many choruses do I get for my solo,” since each section depends on all manner of contrapuntal action from the group.

The result is that Lage’s music offers the reassurance of form even as it’s always fresh and unpredictable. And there are the everyday pleasures of the band’s individual talents -- Lage’s stunning solo flurries, bassist Jorge Roeder’s combination of rock-solid rhythm and virtuoso finger work, saxophonist Ben Roseth’s ability to pick up a stray idea from Lage and develop it, percussionist Tupac Mantilla’s dramatic use of color with his time-keeeping, and cellist Aristides Riva’s confidence in placing his full-toned lines.

The coloristic and textural possibilities are indeed rich. Several times, Roeder and Rivas bowed together, as on a piquant encore take on Astor Piazzolla. And Mantilla avoids standard drum sticks -- using his fingers even for his cymbal work. His use of glockenspiel in one number was especially effective -- its isolated bell-like notes were like a meditative call to refocus attention. As if anyone’s attention had wandered.

--Jon Garelick

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