Julian Lage at Club Passim

I was browsing through the Boston Phoenix paper yesterday and saw that Julian Lage was playing at Club Passim. How did I miss this? Anyway, I went to the Passim website and there was only 1 ticket left for the 7 pm show, so I snagged it. (I didn’t realize until later that he was playing a 10 pm show as well as Sunday night at 8 – the front page of the site only listed the 7 pm show!)

Anyhoooo…on with the show. I arrived at 6:40, having secured my usual secret free-parking space near Harvard Square. Club Passim, or as most people call it, Passims, is a basement venue in Harvard Square. Mostly they have folkie acts, so having a jazzer appear was a bit unusual. It’s a great place to hear music because 1) it is quite, um, ‘intimate’, meaning that you are practically sitting not only on the person next to you, but also on top of the performers; adn 2) the sound is really good – not too loud and a mix where you can actually hear everything. Add to that, the aforementioned intimacy, where you can hear the acoustic nature of the instruments blending with the sound system, and it makes for a good room.

The Julian Lage Group this time is a quintet, adding a cello and tenor sax to the usual guitar, bass, drums trio that I saw at the Beantown Jazz Festival in Sept. You can see how crammed they are on the tiny stage. This was the CD Release party for Gladwell, available on April 26, although they had them at the show. They played a lot from that album, as far as I could tell. The show was excellent and ran from about 7:10, aka “jazztime” to 9 pm.
I’m pretty sure the opening number was “Listening Walk” from Gladwell, due out on April 26. Talk about a workout on the left hand! No wonder at the end of the night Julian said that he’s been having to take care of his left hand due to overuse (I can relate, but he’s only in his 20s!). For the most part the cello and sax were a calming counterpoint to the frenetic picking and percussion of that tune; they seemed to play that background role quite a bit throughout the concert – more like texture backing the trio rather than being on equal footing as soloists on every song. They did get some extended solo turns later in the set. I liked the way it worked. The band was tight, able to shift on a moment’s notice from loud to soft, from quiet introspection to frenetic jam – this is the stuff that makes for a great night of music making.
Other tunes they played from Gladwell included However, Cocoon, Telegram, and probably more, but I’m just judging by the clips on amazon.com and what I remember. 🙂 I can hear in his playing a ton of influences as well as his own unique voice. Sometimes, I hear the Pat Metheny lick or harmony, but he doesn’t stay there long. Like Metheny, it sounds modern and rooted in tradition at the same time – whether that tradition is jazz, rock, folk, country, or something else…I think it’s all of those. Just watch some of the videos on his site or youtube and you can also see that he is really having a good time. Having complete command of your instrument doesn’t hurt, either.
Speaking of tradition, the trio did one of their trademark tunes, the standard Lil Darlin’. This was not your typical Berklee practice room jam session! Go listen to Joe Pass play it first (or this big band arrangement is good and unctious). Then come back and listen to this version (coincidentally recorded at Passims last Aug). Hear the difference? That’s how you modernize a classic and make it your own. At one point, Julian played a new song he was working on where he said he wanted to make something like a traditional jazz tune, but also make fun of it. Making fun of it isn’t exactly what he meant; I think it was more about being ironic. Maybe it was just taking a traditional form and extending it for the 21st century – yeah, I’m going with that last one. 🙂
That video of Lil Darlin’ kinda sums up the group aesthetic. The tune is a jumping off point for an extended improvisation. The interplay among the musicians is awesome, as they almost go into a free jazz section for an extended period before bringing it back home. You can do that if you 1)know the tune inside out; 2) have chops for days; and 3) listen closely to what is going on in the moment.
You can also see in that last video the unusual technique of the percussionist, Tupac Mantilla – using mostly his hands to play. Last night when they played Lil Darlin, he stood up and mostly played by clapping, snapping fingers, hitting himself in various places (knees, face, chest, etc) and even reached over the drum set to bang on the bass for a bit (and on the bass player too, for that matter).

The encore number was, in his words, “well, you’ll know what it is” – i.e. Freight Train. The first part was the way I learned it, but not after that!! His right-hand technique is something to behold on this one, as he played with a pick and was all over the strings with ease.
A great ending to a spectacular night of music.
P.S. That guitar he plays is a Linda Manzer “Blue Note” that he’s had since he was 11 yrs. old. There was an article in the Fretboard Journal about him I read again last night. It can sound really acoustic or really electric depending on how he plays it. He does set up with both a Fender Twin amp (I believe) and a mic in front to get the acoustic sound.


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