Jazz Concert Review: Nels Cline 4 — Mindbenders

Nels Cline 4 is a group that can cross musical and cultural boundaries with exhilarating ease.

Nels Cline 4 at the Port City Music Hall, Portland, ME, on July 3

The Nels Cline 4 at the Port City Music Hall. Photo: Steve Feeney.

by Steve Feeney

At first glance, guitarists Nels Cline and Julian Lage might seem a generational and stylistic mismatch.

The mostly self-taught Cline (62) emerged as a downtown improvisor long before coming to international renown as a member of the alt-rock band Wilco. Former child prodigy and classically-trained Berklee College grad Lage (30) gained jazz cred when he worked with Gary Burton a few years back. He’s toured recently as part of a tight trio that defies easy categorization.

Cline and Lage proved compatible, nonetheless; they proved that when they recorded and toured as a duo in 2015 (which including a stop in Portland). They share a playful approach to established forms and take obvious pleasure in complementing each other’s contrasting musical ideas, whether in soft-serve reveries or spiced-up jousts.

The pair returned to Portland on a steamy 4th of July eve in support of a new disc by the Nels Cline 4 called Currents, Constellations (Blue Note). That recording features the two guitarists along with a rhythm section consisting of Scott Colley on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. The latter two, for this gig, were replaced by Devon Hoff and Dave King, respectively.

Cline took the lead on his own originals, as well as on a handful of choice covers in a two-hour concert that ranged widely, from jazz and rock to contemporary classical (Western and Eastern) and full-out mindbenders.

“Furtive,” the first number on the disc, also kicked off the show. The tune received a powerfully stubborn push from King, who fans of the Bad Plus know to be an intense percussionist. It started off quietly, but the piece was soon all about thundering drums, power chords, and unison progressions from the guitar slingers.

An obscure Carla Bley composition followed, as the band became an ensemble in a more formal sense. “Temporarily” might be classified by a term that’s now a bit out of favor — Third Stream. Jazz references opened and closed a composition that includes passing moments of formal (classical) cohesion.

Cline’s “Swing Ghost ‘59” was among the gig’s closest fly-overs in terms of serving up a traditional jazz sound. But its spirit was uneasy, constantly seeking to break away from conventional constraints: it seemed as if whirlwinds of notes were bottled up and struggling to break free — to be uncorked. “Amenette” was a stop-and-go romp in tribute, tellingly, to a couple of Cline’s inspirations: Scott Amendola and Ornette Coleman.

The slender leader calmed his Jazzmaster down a bit to perform a number by a recently passed guitar hero. “Memoir” is a gentle John Abercrombie piece that hung in the air with a sweet reverberating abundance. One listener was overheard to whisper, “It sounds like one guitarist,” as Cline and Lage established a seamless web of reflective harmonies.

Lage, on a Telecaster, generally played a secondary role in the band, doubling the leader’s scalar runs and offering fills and comments that augmented the leader’s concept of the moment. His few solos revealed a slightly more controlled approach, offsetting Cline’s at-times-almost-possessed improvisatory flashes.

Paul Motian’s “Owl of Cranston” provided an opportunity for the leader to deconstruct traditional approaches to playing an electric guitar. He was all over his instrument, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes atavistic, generating strange vibrations only a few guitarists can carry-off. His use of pedal effects might have been minimal, but his willingness to take things outside musical boxes was amazing.

“River Mouth 1&2” was a crowd pleaser (and personal favorite), a tune whose South-Asian rhythms were slowly developed, eventually reaching a transcendent intensity by the climax. Cline and Lage traded lead and support positions in a way that was meant to transfix — even mesmerize. It did.

King and Hoff, the latter a demon in both measured arco and rapid-fire pizzicato moments, added punch to a group that crossed musical and cultural boundaries with exhilarating ease.

Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.

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