Jazz CD Review: The Nels Cline 4 — Eclectic Accomplishment

This disc is mainly a showcase for guitarist Nels Cline’s compositions as well as his cleverness at commanding group improvisation.

The Nels Cline 4, Currents, Constellations (Blue Note)

By Michael Ullman

Most listeners, I am guessing, would know the now 62 year old Nels Cline as the guitarist with Wilco, or perhaps as the man Rolling Stone magazine included in its controversial list of the 100 greatest guitarists. I first heard of him  on the late saxophonist Julius Hemphill’s 1984 recording Georgia Blue, on which he played with his twin brother, drummer Alex Cline. In that session, the guitarist showed how adept he could be in a supportive role — providing a organ-like cushion for Hemphill’s improvisations — but also at improvising in tandem with the alto saxophonist. He contributed a long, rock-inspired blues solo on the title cut, using electronic distortions at its climax. His use of odd chomping sounds as well as single note intrusions invited Hemphill to return with the melody.

Even then, Cline was an eclectic as well as an accomplished musician, welcome as a sideman on jazz albums led by Tim Berne and Vinny Golia and adventurous as a leader: in one of his projects he re-made — in his own image — John Coltrane’s duet album Interstellar Space. Clearly he is fearless; he is also generous. In 2014, he invited celebrated guitarist Julian Lage to make the duet recording Room (Mack Avenue). They are back together on Currents, Constellations, this time assisted by bassist Scott Colley and drummer Tom Rainey. All of this quartet’s pieces are by Cline, except for the innocent-sounding (to the point of nonchalant) Carla Bley melody “Temporarily,” which I know only in the version by Jimmy Giuffre with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow. (It is on a reissue of Giuffre’s Thesis, 1961.)

The Nels Cline 4. Photo: Blue Note.

This disc is mainly a showcase for Cline’s compositions as well as his cleverness at commanding group improvisation. There’s plenty of playfulness here — even the song titles are amusing. But the conversations between guitarists are eloquent, sensitive, and sometimes thrilling.

Currents, Constellations begins boldly with a dissonant held chord and then a short drum solo by Rainey before bassist Colley enters with a bass line in double time. Only then do we hear the melody stated by the guitars together. It’s a bold beginning that soon gives way to a few choruses of free improvisation. Surprisingly, the piece is called “Furtive.” What is the inspiration for “Swing Ghost, ’59”? The death of Lester Young in 1959? It begins with a jaunty phrase stated, I believe, by Lage, but then stalls over some repeated chords that fade out to silence. The whole sequence is repeated, with some space given over for improvisation. “Amenette” is a quick, swinging melody that again moves from a brisk four/four to an out-of-tempo dialogue, all questions and no answers, by the two guitars.

Like Ornette Coleman, Cline likes compositions with two contrasting parts. “River Mouth” is dreamy, elusive, and even gentle, with Lage providing a background for Cline’s musings. It is tempting to focus on the nimble power of the two guitarists, both giants, but the entire quartet contributes, mightily, to what I am tempted to call an exercise in living, breathing music.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. (He plays piano badly.)

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