Boston’s near neighbor Somerville on Nov. 3 hosted a double bill of standout small ensembles led by gifted guitarists Julian Lage and Juanito Pascual and sharing the one-of-a-kind percussionist Tupac Mantilla. Though most of the featured musicians have since moved away, all of them have ties to Boston from having studied here. And all share an interest in brushing aside the boundaries separating established musical genres.
The Julian Lage Group opened, kicking off their set with “233 Butler,” which likewise begins their 2011 debut album, Gladwell. This group of theirs-Lage and Mantilla joined by Aristides Rivas on cello, Dan Blake on tenor sax, and Jorge Roeder on bass-was formed with the old Jimmy Giuffre Trio and Wayne Shorter’s longstanding current quartet as its lodestars, the former presumably for the chamber and folk elements it brought to jazz, the latter for its extraordinary mix of sophisticated writing and daredevil improvisation. And so the group took liberties with the opener, Lage toying with the theme in places like a cat with a mouse, and Mantilla, when his turn came, performing the bulk of his solo on himself rather than his array of percussion instruments-constructing a riveting, full-fledged improvisation from snapping his fingers and slapping his legs, chest, and cheeks.
Five tunes not on the first album followed, suggesting a follow-up could be in the offing. “Up from the North” is a new favorite that has been getting regular play lately. Blake took an impressive roaring solo toward the front end of it, but the tune is built on a soft, airy melody and pleasing shifts in dynamics, so Lage and Mantilla settled things back down as the music moved on to Lage’s sinuous guitar line. “For Us to Sing” had a classical feel to it, opening with a quiet guitar meditation from Lage and featuring lush cello work from Rivas. “Bossa” was set up to feature Roeder, who used an octave pedal to elevate the pitches he interwove with Lage’s accompaniment. But “Bossa” also included a bluesy solo from Blake, Mantilla’s most fully developed solo of the set, and some burning guitar from Lage as it climaxed.
“Going Home, Parkton” was a trio effort by Lage, Roeder and Mantilla, with Lage comping for another Roeder bass solo (this one sans electronic effects) and, as customary for this group, the fun involved in flashing one’s chops was not allowed to get in the way of the music. (Lage, in particular, seemed to dial down the showier aspects of his playing for most of the set, while nonetheless playing brilliantly throughout.) “Woodside Waltz” slowed things down considerably and gave a satisfying taste of Blake’s ballad skills, with Lage following with a lyrical guitar solo of his own and Mantilla swirling the time along with his brushes. And then the set ended, as it often does these days, with another tune from Gladwell: the ferociously up-tempo “Telegram.” Lage and Blake kept the focus largely on them by doing their variation on trading fours, each echoing the other’s improvisational inventions as they swapped the soloing back and forth. Lage, still only 24, has the well-deserved reputation as the musical prodigy, but Blake showed no strain in keeping up with him.
Pascual referenced Lage’s reputation when his New Flamenco Trio came out for its turn to play, gushing that the evening’s event was “a little like doing a double bill with Mozart.” The trio opened with a piece new enough to lack a title as yet (Pascual welcomed the audience to email suggestions to his website) and led off with Mantilla on percussion, joined soon thereafter with some particularly percussive moments from Pascual on guitar and Brad Barrett anchoring the proceedings on bass. The trio’s second offering, on the other hand, dated back to before Pascual, now 39, left his native Minneapolis to study at New England Conservatory. It was titled “Mañana,” as it looked toward what was then his future, and Barrett snuck peeks at sheet music while supporting the guitar lead; Mantilla took his flashiest solo of the trio set on this tune, a bravura effort built around his frame drums and cajón. The trio then moved directly on to something more meditative, the pillowy tango original “Tiferet,” which featured elegant dancing among the instruments to a quiet, lovely theme that called to mind Pat Metheny at his poppiest.
The tune most directly connected to jazz in the set, though, was up next. Pascual switched from playing his traditional flamenco guitar seated and cross-legged to standing with an alternate instrument he’s begun experimenting on, an Alhambra electro-acoustic model whose built-in pickups provide him better volume control for soloing with the trio. (He also, he says, wasn’t willing to cut holes in his hand-made flamenco guitar to install strap buttons so he could play standing up.) Pascual announced that the trio would be playing a jazz standard, and suggested that audience members not recognizing it ask the person seated beside them. Pascual plucked his guitar energetically, Barrett bowed a well-wrought solo, and Mantilla finally brought his ocean drums into the mix, the beads inside them yielding a snare-like sound meant to conjure water rolling onto shore. It wasn’t easy, but those listening closely could just make out the outlines of the Miles Davis classic “All Blues” peeking out from the improvising.
Pascual took his seat again for a solo piece, “Rio,” and was then rejoined onstage by his trio mates and a guest, Juan Pérez Rodríguez, on palmas for “Llegó la Noche .” The three others stood together in a row and clapped their hands to rhythmically augment Pascual’s guitar, and as the song climaxed Pérez Rodríguez took on #cantaor# duties, offering up impassioned vocals as punctuation.
Pascual then grabbed back up his electro-acoustic, and, after joking that he was ready to play a Bob Dylan cover, set up the next piece with some talk of his connections to rock music. Aside from having worked at a record store back in Minneapolis with a woman who had grown up with Dylan-“Bobby Zimmerman was the weirdest thing that ever walked the streets of Hibbing,” he mimicked her telling him-Pascual grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix recordings, from which he said the guitar-trio format left an early imprint on him. This led him to telling how the present trio had been invited by Danilo Pérez to perform in a rain forest in Pérez’s native Panama. The trip inspired a new composition, the rumba “Mamoni,” the trio’s set-closer, which Pascual got the audience to help them out with by calling up the atmosphere of the rainforest via wind, bird, and animal sounds. (Versions of “Mamoni” and “Tiferet” were on the two-song EP distributed to audience members before the show to promote the trio’s Kickstarter campaign for what would be their debut album, the details of which-among them that Grammy-winning sound engineer Rob Griffin, a longtime collaborator with Paco de Lucia and Wayne Shorter, would be involved-Pascual invited them to check out on his website. )
An encore followed: the trio’s tribute to another pop hero of Pascual’s, titled “Rumba for J.B.,” the initials standing for James Brown. Brown, of course, was known as “the hardest-working man in show business.” Mantilla, with his double duty as a member of both bands, could plausibly lay claim to being that night’s hardest-working man in Somerville. But both groups demonstrated exciting, audience-friendly new ways to explore guitar improvisation.