Floating heavyweights

By JON GARELICK  |  April 13, 2011

Far away, on the other side of the musical planet, is Julian Lage, the 23-year-old guitar phenom who was playing with Gary Burton's quartet as a teenager and is now celebrating the release of his second solo album as a leader, Gladwell (EmArcy), April 23 at Passim.

With Burton, Lage proved himself an inspired jazz player possessed of great tone and touch, and mature instincts. Despite his facility, he never sounded glib. As a writer and bandleader, he continued to make progressive-mainstream jazz with contemporaries like pianist Taylor Eigsti, but he also came up with a quintet that was like nothing else in jazz: guitar, saxophone, cello, bass, percussion. In his live shows, there was a phenomenal collective interplay as well as ensemble transparency. (Drummer Tupac Mantilla played his array of skins and cymbals strictly with his bare hands.) What's more, Lage was uninhibited about combining all his passions: jazz, the 20th-century Catalonian classical composer Frederic Mompou, and bluegrass. (His early collaborators include David Grisman and Béla Fleck, and he's part of polymath fiddler Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing jazz group.)

The new album is programmatic: Lage's notes describe Gladwell as an imaginary town with "a diverse mixture of people and influences." But you don't really need to know that to find access. Opener "233 Butler" is a riffing AABA folk tune with a transitional section of swing; "Margaret" is a pop tune in search of words, "Freight Train" a trad number as old as the hills. The strangeness comes with the rich mix of ingredients in each song — the unanticipated detours for Aristides Rivas's solo cello or a percussion break, a harmonic by-way, a "string section" for Rivas and bassist Jorge Roeder, Lage's quicksilver guitar runs.

Lage intersperses three solo guitar pieces on the album — unclassifiable études in which he overdubs his own improvisations with himself. The folk and roots make it clear this is a guitar album — the kind of experiment that recalls the immersion of Gary Burton and Steve Swallow in "guitaristic" rock-influenced composition, or their collaborator Pat Metheny. But Lage, with his taste in vintage acoustic and electric-guitar sounds, his own mix of influences, and this unusual ensemble, is doing something just as radical.

Another side of the "guitaristic" is being explored by the French-born tenor- and soprano-saxophonist Jérôme Sabbagh (now living in Brooklyn). A few years ago, with One Two Three (Bee Jazz), he proved he could hold his own on a classic tenor-trio album playing standards, his pliant tone, rhythmic imagination, and gorgeous execution making the familiar strange and wonderful. On I Will Follow You (Bee Jazz), which was released late last year, he joins forces with fortysomething guitar genius Ben Monder and 72-year-old French-Swiss drummer Daniel Humair (no bass!). Here is a mix of free improv and composed pieces, each integral in its own way. So Sabbagh's "More" — with its halting unison line for tenor and guitar and a double-time bebopping sax cadenza — turns comic when the unison theme returns with big, dirty guitar distortion. There's plenty of free squall here and (on "Saloon") a bit of "Kashmir" riffing. The tension between abstract and familiar — atmospheric guitar washes and bebop, rock and jazz — always pays off. There's even a slow, tender "I Should Care." Sabbagh comes to the Beehive on the 27th with guitarist Nadav Remez, bassist Tamir Shmerling, and drummer Eran Fink.

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