Following his Grammy-nominated 2009 debut Sounding Point, virtuoso guitarist Julian Lage returns with the evocative and finely wrought Gladwell - the second effort by his offbeat, eclectic group with cellist Aristides Rivas, percussionist Tupac Mantilla, bassist Jorge Roeder and saxophonist Dan Blake.
The album unfolds according to a fanciful and story-driven plan, as Lage explains: "We began playing with the idea of creating a story we could use as a guiding light in our writing process.... The result was the development of an imaginary and forgotten town known as Gladwell.... As a metaphor, Gladwell presented us with a clear architecture, to compose songs that evoke feelings of people and places we hold dear."
Sweeping, colorful and thrillingly executed, the album opens with "233 Butler," named for the Brooklyn street address of vintage instrument shop, Musurgia. Here and throughout, Lage showcases his group's highly developed rapport and varied, refreshing approach to orchestration, with originals pieces that bring to life the fictional sights and sounds of Gladwell: the train station ("Listening Walk"), the church ("Cocoon," featuring Blake on melodica - channeling sounds that could be likened to the artsy streets of Paris), the bazaar ("Iowa Taken"). "Some songs specifically identify with particular parts of the town," writes Lage, "while other pieces simply fit into the overall concept and musical direction. The intention of the music is to encourage the listener, at every turn, to take a step towards the unknown...."
As with Sounding Point, Gladwell reflects Lage's wide-ranging musical interests and talents, ranging from chamber music, American folk and bluegrass to latin, world, string-band tradition and modern jazz. The album also exhibits contemporary singer-songwriter aesthetics. "Margaret" was inspired by Lage's friend, singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy, with whom he has frequently shared the stage. "However," written by Dan Blake, "explores the rich synthesis of Afro-pop with Irish fiddle music along with American folk music," writes Lage.
Frequently one hears Lage deploy the cello and saxophone almost as a single, interconnected instrument. "Iowa Taken," meanwhile, allows Lage to shine in a trio setting with just bass and drums. The leader's fluid improvisations and rich, beautifully captured tone on electric and acoustic guitars anchor the music at every step, but the contributions of the band members are equally indispensable.
"Dan has a background in classical composition as well as improvisation," says Lage, "so he brings a sense of curiosity to the band that is deeply rooted in a variety of traditions. From Aristides we've learned a tremendous amount about how to play as a chamber-like ensemble, how to utilize dynamics and blending, and how to move and breathe as a unit. The sound of cello has opened our ears to the world that lives between classical music and jazz and it is amazing to witness how Aristides so uniquely marries the two. Tupac is like a conductor of energy, using his diverse palette of colors to shape and inform the music - his approach is never static, and it is exhilarating to share in his passion for uncovering new approaches. Jorge [who was the first member to join the band] has an incredible grounding force that enables the band to really take off in any direction at any point in time - I feel Jorge's presence as kind of like the narrator of a story, always keeping an eye on the bigger perspective while remaining an active participant at every turn."