In fact, there's little that's predictable about Sounding Point. The old Count Basie chestnut "Lil' Darlin' " (written by Neil Hefti) begins with a rocking quarter-note vamp before the familiar tune comes out. As "Clarity" suggests, Lage mostly defers standard verse-chorus-bridge arrangements in favor of mixed forms — a theme emerging after a bit of rubato playfulness, then disappearing in the midst of five-way free improv, only to transform into secondary or tertiary themes. Although there's plenty of solo room here — and plenty of places for the guitar star to shine — one rarely gets the sense of soloists taking turns over fixed chord progressions. Occasionally, Lage draws on the atonal sounds of rustling paper or scraped strings. The 46-second "Peterborough" is an étude for Lage and Roseth worked out when the saxophonist was staying in Lage's apartment on that Fenway street. Only an encore duet of Lage and Eigsti playing Miles Davis's "All Blues" is at all standard, and the two young virtuosos put their own stamp on it. The trio tracks with Fleck and Thile are similarly ingenious devices, tightly arranged bravura displays that maximize the musical interrelationships. The overlapping timbres of guitar, mandolin, and banjo only enhance the illusory three-card-monte effect.
"The other cool thing about mandolin, guitar, and banjo," Lage tells me when we get together at an ice-cream shop on Mass Ave not far from Berklee, "is that guitar is the lowest of all three. That's not usually where guitar lives. In my experience, it's always the lead — you're like a saxophone player. Or you comp. But to be the bass is like . . . oh man!" Lage laughs and adds, "It's an honor to be the bass for those guys."
Lage, who's finishing an artist's-diploma degree at Berklee, tells a typical Boston story of how his band came together — a series of playing relationships among Berklee and New England Conservatory students and, as often happens, the common denominator of Danilo Pérez, who teaches at both schools and introduced Lage to Rivas. "I knew I wanted a group that would be diverse in itself, and one with . . . potential. That was more important to me that anything else." Once he had put Roeder, Roseth, and Rivas together, "I knew I couldn't have a traditional drum set." He hadn't been looking for particular sounds. "I thought, man, these are the right people, and they happen to play these instruments. So I lucked out."
Composition became a necessity. "We couldn't just call a standard and play. Aristides comes from the classical world; Tupac studied classical marimba. There was no common denominator, so I thought, 'How can I write so everybody has a purpose?' I took from classical, I took from bluegrass and fiddle tunes, I took from jazz standards."
Still, at the moment, Lage says classical is his cornerstone — its "variety of forms, structures, architecture." He cites the Catalan impressionist Federico Mompou as well as the musique concrète and acousmatic procedures of François Bayle. And he refers to a Björk concert he attended in California several years ago that, he says, "changed my life." He realized there was a way to incorporate his love of the roots-based genre crossing of David Grisman with classical electronic experiments. In addition to finishing his degree at Berklee, he's been conducting research at UC-Berkeley's Center for New Music and Audio Technology.