Max Light is having quite the year. The 27-year-old guitarist from Bethesda, Maryland is releasing his debut album as a bandleader, Herplusme, only a short time after he took second place in the prestigious Herbie Hancock (formerly Thelonious Monk) International Jazz Guitar Competition. Watching the contest, it was easy to see how he made it so far; wielding a beautiful Gibson ES-345, he played Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” with delicate romance but also imaginative harmonic interplay—preventing the ballad from sliding anywhere near maudlin territory—and Victor Lewis’ “Hey, It’s Me You’re Talking To” with high finesse and a tone that bridged the symphonic reverb of Les Paul and the bluesy shred of Joe Bonamassa.
On Herplusme, Light demonstrates a strong fluency with the angular contours of modern jazz guitar, especially how it’s being defined (or redefined) by the likes of Mary Halvorson and Miles Okazaki. He follows their angular tonality while pursuing a greater emphasis on group dynamics, organizing the album around the interplay between guitar, bass, and drums as much as solos. For the opening track “Boy,” his chunky, dense chords clash against Matt Honor’s crashing drums while bassist Simón Willson navigates a through line on the bass. On “Overcrooked,” Light plays circular melodies that spiral down together in a whirlpool. Light, Willson, and Honor further disorient the listener by never truly playing on the beat—at times they’re nearly on, at times very much off—making it seem as if the melody is constantly snagging.
Light returns to something like his “Prelude to a Kiss” approach on “Dog,” which is also the most “out” of all eight tracks. His tone here is more muscular than romantic, alternating between blaring block chords and spindly arpeggios. Midway through, he embarks on a snaking solo that sees his fingers in constant motion across the fretboard. I suspect they’ll be moving similarly for years to come.
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