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Guitarist Lage's virtuosity takes center stage

By Bill Beuttler
Globe Correspondent /​ April 25, 2011

CAMBRIDGE — The Julian Lage Group kicked off the release this week of “Gladwell’’ with two nights of prerelease celebrating at Club Passim. And celebrate they did, with stretched out and ramped up performances of material taken almost entirely from the album, featuring jaw-dropping virtuosity from the group’s ferociously gifted 23-year-old namesake guitarist.

All five musicians did their jobs well. Classically oriented cellist Aristides Rivas bowed lush lead turns on the newer piece “Welcoming Committee’’ and “Cocoon,’’ with tenor saxophonist Dan Blake helping out on the latter and taking the melody soaring on “Margaret,’’ a tribute to Lage’s sometime collaborator Margaret Glaspy. Blake also cut loose on his own hypnotic “However’’ and the burning set-closer, “Telegram,’’ and bassist Jorge Roeder alternated holding down the bottom with his fingers with bowing in tandem with Rivas.

Percussionist Tupac Mantilla was phenomenal, working primarily with his hands (the index and middle fingers of both of them taped), so precise he seemed in telepathic contact with Lage. He was a crowd-pleaser, too, conducting the audience in integral handclapping on “233 Butler’’ and standing up to slap (and stomp) the rhythm to Neal Tefti’s “Li’l Darlin’ ’’ on everything in reach save his drums and cymbals — his own thighs, chest, cheeks, and lips, that is, as well as Roeder’s bass and shoulders. He also drew a laugh on the same cover by massaging the still hunched over Roeder for a couple of beats after a finely crafted bass solo.

As good as they were, though, the four were clearly the supporting cast to Lage’s Michael Jordan. Lage wore his guitar genius lightly, augmenting it occasionally with casually flashy tricks. That he seemed as surprised and delighted by what he was doing as the audience was kept it from seeming showoff-y, even on the untitled solo piece he said began as his attempt to write a jazz standard. “It started as mocking jazz guitar,’’ Lage explained, jokingly, “and then it turned into this thing. It’s so awkward.’’

Lage returned onstage alone to offer “the musical equivalent of a nightcap,’’ a solo performance of the folk standard “Freight Train.’’ His encore version was jazzed up from the simpler one on the new CD, and was eaten up by the Club Passim packed house. Said club may be “our favorite place to play in the whole world,’’ as Lage told the crowd of 125 early on, but talent as large as his is clearly destined for bigger venues.

At: Club Passim, first set, Saturday