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Jorge Glem Makes Mighty Music With a Little Instrument at Lincoln Center

Jorge Glem is the Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro. He was the first to assemble a band of three cuatros, the C4 Trio, in which he refined his breathtaking technique and ability to play everything from folk tunes, to jazz of all sorts, to classical and grunge rock. More about that last style later. Thursday night at Lincoln Center, he reaffirmed his status as one of the most individualistically talented players in any style of music around the world.

Glem opened with Pez Volador (Flying Fish), backed by a rhythm section of Ricky Rodriguez on bass and Ari Hoenig on drums. The result turned out much more lush than anyone could have expected from just a little four-string instrument no bigger than a mandolin. Using his fingertips rather than a pick, Glem strummed out the pensively dancing, vallenato-tinged melody, Rodriguez adding a purposefully waltzing solo. From terse, muted, flamencoish lines, Glem worked his way up to seemingly effortless volleys of tremolo-picking as the trio wound up the song.

They went straight into jazz with the enigmatic variations and shifting syncopation of the second number, Bily, over Hoenig’s flickering rimshots. Again, Glem took his time working upward to fiery flurries of chords, through a handful of lively, incisive conversational moments between the three musicians. The slinky Por Alguien Como Tu, by Venezuelan composer Carlos Morean, got a mean funk intro and some wildfire cuatro glissandos before the three swung the clave with all sorts of dynamic variations that once again veered into the postbop arena, and then hints of Romany swing. Hoenig’s salsa accents at the end drew chuckles from those who were paying attention.

Pianist Luis Perdomo joined the group for Merengue Today, choosing his spots and then spiraling through rivulets of deep blues. After that big crescendo, there was nowhere for the rest of the band to go other than to simply tap out the rhythm. The quartet then approached the tropical classic Estate with a spare, summery, pensiveness and echoes of Gershwin, Glem picking out an incisive solo over Perdomo’s quietly stygian backing.

After a funny interlude where Glem voiced pretty much every south-of-the-border rhythm on his axe, he kicked on his loop pedal and layered one rhythm after another, a one-man salsa orchestra doing a well-known 90s grunge hit that turned out vastly better than the original. His mashup of Bach’s Toccata in D with the Venezuelan folk song Pajarilllo and no wave jazz was just as irresistible, a sizzling display of strumming, glissandos and ghostly rivulets of harmonics.

Pras Criancas by Hamilton de Holanda gave the band the chance to stretch out with shapeshifting tropicalia; last on the bill was Pablo Milanes’ De Que Callada Manera. The next free concert in the mostly-weekly series at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St, is tomorrow night, Aug 23 at 7:30 PM with Congolese group the Soukous All Stars.

There’s Nothing Jorge Glem Can’t Play on the Cuatro

Last night before the show at Joe’s Pub, the trippy sounds of cumbia icons Chicha Libre’s Canibalismo album wafted through the PA, a very good omen. Like Chicha Libre’s Olivier Conan, Venezuelan wizard Jorge Glem plays the cuatro, the shortscale Pan-American four-stringed instrument. The C4 Trio co-founder explained that he wants to bring that spiky little axe into every style of music around the world…and if there’s anybody who has the chops to do that, it’s Glem. You can watch the whole show at youtube.

He drew plenty of laughs for his account of how he came to play it. As a small child, he wanted to be a percussionist, but his mom wouldn’t let him use the family pots and pans. But there was a cuatro hanging on the wall of his home in Cumaná, a common sight in a neighborhood where it was more kitschy decor than anything else. With a big grin, he vigorously delivered the very first sounds he was able to get out of it: mimicking the beats of a conga by banging on the instrument’s body while muting the strings, first at the sound hole and then right at the headstock for highs and lows. Throughout the show, he also made it sound like a banjo, a mandolin, a flamenco guitar, a pandeiro, many different drums, a mosquito and a jet engine among other things.

Guest clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera also related a funny anecdote about Blues for Sonny, a Sonny Rollins tribute by Toots Thielemans that D’Rivera had recorded with the late jazz harmonica player. Michel Camilo heard it and said to D’Rivera, “That’s a Venezuelan tune! What does Sonny Rollins have to do with Venezuela?” So it would make sense for D’Rivera to play that warmly bouncing number with Glem. The two followed with A Night in Tunisia, which D’Rivera had first thrown at Glem at an impromptu performance at the National Arts Club…and was amazed to find that Glem knew it. That was a showcase for Glem’s postbop phrasing, but then again, so was Glem’s opening solo improvisation.

Joined by accordionist Sam Reider, Glem mashed up what sounded like an Irish reel, a high lonesome Applachian dance, vallenato and champeta, maybe, throwing in a boisterous improvisation midway through. Likewise, guitarist Yotam Silberstein playfully jousted with Glem throughout a shapeshifting blend of Caribbean coastal folk, postbop and some of the most fluidly legato Django Reinhardt ever played.

The final guest was singer Claudia Acuña, who held the crowd in the palm of her hand with her bittersweetly nuanced low register throughout a couple of ballads in both English and Spanish. Glem encored with a final, chord-chopping solo piece that quoted liberally from Bach and Beethoven, and maybe Yomo Toro and Dick Dale too. How Glem managed to get through that one without breaking either strings or his fingers is a mystery that has yet to be solved. No wonder there’s a documentary film being made about his crazy cuatro cross-pollinations here in New York.