Renaissance Man: Guitarist Nels Cline Ranges from Wilco to Blue Note to Free Improv and Beyond

By Bradley Bambarger <2016>

In the span of just a couple months as this summer turned to fall, one could trace the far-flung gamut of Nels Cline’s musical enthusiasms. The guitarist saw the release of his first Blue Note album: the double-disc set Lovers, a lushly orchestrated vision of romanticism and the realization of a decades-long dream. Just after that came Schmilco, the latest album by beloved Americana art-rock band Wilco, in which Cline functions as lead guitarist-cum-sonic provocateur. Then there was his curated week at Lower Manhattan’s progressive-jazz den The Stone, where Cline convened some of his closest friends and world’s keenest improvisers for dizzying extremes of fierce and hushed, structured and abstract. Nels Cline is a guitarist as Renaissance man.

Born and bred in Los Angeles, but resident in New York City for the past few years, the 60-year-old Cline is in an especially happy place, emotionally and artistically. That’s why Lovers took on more light than shadow by the time Cline was finally in the position to realize this ambitious venture of 18 songs and 23 musicians. “I always loved those albums that were supposed to be backdrops for romance, like John Coltrane’s Ballads and Ben Webster’s Soulville or, with their ambience, the Miles Davis & Gil Evans LPs or Stan Getz’s Focus,” he says. “When I first imagined my take on this sort of thing, I envisioned something darker — ‘mood music,’ though stranger, more offbeat. But Lovers turned out a bit brighter, more diverse, more classicist.

“I guess this is because I’m a different person now than I was in my thirties when I initially dreamt up this album,” Cline continues. “I’m happily married for one thing, and there’s also being in a successful band like Wilco — I didn’t really make a decent living in music until I joined the band, about a dozen years ago. Life is sweeter these days, so the music is sweeter. There are various shades to the music, but it’s certainly less angst-ridden than in my original conception all those years ago. I’ve also really been drawn to some of those older recordings lately, the enduring resonance they have.”

Even though Cline is the only true soloist on Lovers, it isn’t a “guitar record,” per se. His guitar is like a golden thread that runs through the album’s richly detailed tapestries, arranged in league with his catalytic studio partner for the sessions, trumpeter/keyboardist Michael Leonhart, whose artful orchestrations allude to music from Gypsy jazz to Bollywood to Gil Evans. And those seeking the saw-toothed side of Cline will do so in vain, as he eschews distortion this time in favor of a warm, sensuous tone; his sound glows like a Romeo’s heart, the phrasing subtle, often subdued, even pensive whether electric or acoustic.

While referencing coupled romance, Lovers also serves as a scrapbook of Cline’s expansive musical loves. The spirit of jazz-guitar hero Jim Hall hovers over the project like a benediction, with direct homage in “Secret Love.” (“Jim had that classic sound, but he was always pushing the envelope aesthetically — and inspired me that a guitar could front an orchestra,” Cline says.) The album encompasses covers of jazz tunes by Jimmy Giuffre, Gábor Szabó and Annette Peacock, as well as a wonderful version of Arto Lindsay’s avant-Brazilian “It Only Has to Happen Once” and a raga treatment of Sonic Youth’s “Snare, Girl.” There are distinctive takes on film themes (“Invitation” by Bronisław Kaper; the theme from The Night Porter) and multiple Broadway standards (a legacy of shows seen with his musical-loving father), not to mention a string of intricately laced Cline originals — including “The Bond,” the melody-rich closer dedicated to his wife, the Tokyo-born Yuka Honda, co-founder of art-pop band Cibo Matto.

With their indefinable genre affiliations and serrated edges, most of Cline’s previous albums would hardly have been modern Blue Note material. Maybe not even New Monastery, his spiky rendering of music by vintage Blue Note artist Andrew Hill; and certainly not his explosive reimagining of the John Coltrane/Rasheid Ali free-jazz LP Interstellar Space with drummer Gregg Bendian. But with Lovers, the guitarist had the right record at the right time. Besides, the man at the top is a fan.

“Nels is a guy after my own heart,” says Don Was, the famously well-connected musician, producer and, since 2012, president of Blue Note Records. “He can move in all these different musical circles without compromising his essential identity. He has this inner voice that always comes through. And with Lovers, he made something that connects on so many levels. It’s music deeply rooted in tradition, yet with the vision to take it bit further. Nels does like to describe this record as ‘mood music,’ and that definitely worked with me — it affected my mood, elicited an emotional response. That’s essentially what I listen for in the music that comes through this office.”

Cline spent decades working in L.A. record stores and bookshops, stoking his love of the arts. “I’ve always been a total denizen of record stores, obsessed with searching out and listening to music of all kinds,” he says. “Getting into the guitar as a rock’n’roll kid, I grew up wanting to be Jimi Hendrix or Roger McGuinn. I get to express a lot of my 15-year-old self while playing in Wilco now. Then I became obsessed with the blues and all the extensions of the blues, then really got into jazz. On Lovers, you can hear tips of the hat to everything from electric Django Reinhardt to Marc Ribot. These days, I play a lot of quiet, rubato music in fully improvised settings, and we can really rock out and get edgy in Wilco. And vice versa. So I am in the fortunate position to be able to explore all sides of what I’m into.”

In Wilco, Cline tends to hang back in bandleader Jeff Tweedy’s more folk-inflected material, but the guitarist transforms such songs as “Handshake Drugs” and “Impossible Germany” into Television-like arias of six-string rock ecstasy. Since 2004, Cline’s contributions to Wilco have helped cement its evolution from a sonically ambitious group with roots in alt-country to something like the American version of Radiohead, a widely popular yet self-driven band that challenges itself and its audience. Cline describes the new Schmilco album as “dulcet, sparse, even breezy, almost the opposite of the last one, Star Wars. Jeff doesn’t always sing full out on some tunes, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Since on any given night I get ‘to shred,’ as Jeff says, on songs like ‘The Art of Almost’ and ‘Impossible Germany,’ I’m happy, man. I just want to help Jeff make the music sound exactly as he wants it. He’s a really smart artist, prolific and at the top of his game.”

Beyond Wilco, Cline’s home group is his Nels Cline Singers, an instrumental outfit despite the name. They play, to quote from an early Cline liner note, an “amalgam of spidery jazzoid invention, monolithic psych-rock bludgeon, balladry, icy space reverberations and related joy/trauma.” Following the half-studio/half-live double-disc epic Initiate, Cline’s sixth and most recent album under the Singers rubric was 2014’s Macroscope, which featured a core of bassist Trevor Dunn and longtime drummer Scott Amendola, along with such guests as Honda. Since that, the guitarist has collaborated with the likes of hit groove-jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, the foursome recording a live album, Woodstock Sessions. MM&W has worked repeatedly with jazz guitarist John Scofield, renowned for his funkiness. Cline says, “Oh, I’m no Scofield, I realize that — but I get that music. I know how to listen to those guys and play off what they do. I just love to play with different kinds of people and have fun making things up. I do feel that improvisation is my strong suit. Freedom is illuminating — and intimate. Even if the music doesn’t end up sounding intimate, the act of making it is.”

Tim Berne met Cline in the late Seventies, when the avant-jazz saxophonist-composer was in Los Angeles making his first albums, which included Cline’s twin brother, Alex, on drums. (Alex also plays in the Lovers ensemble, as do such old friends as bassist Devon Hoff and clarinetist Ben Goldberg.) Of late, Berne has teamed with Cline and drummer Jim Black in volcanic free-improv trio BB&C, recording a live album, The Veil. The band reconvened for more of what Cline calls “in-the-moment conversation” during his week at The Stone. After all these years, Berne marvels over the guitarist’s “constant, passionate curiosity.” He says: “Nels has listened to so many different kinds of music and plays so well by ear that he can interact with virtually anybody. He doesn’t put up walls.” Berne has worked with a who’s who of individualist guitarists over the years — David Torn, Marc Ducret, Bill Frisell, Mary Halvorson — and he knows what he likes: “Nels is a very decisive player — there’s no noodling with him, no dead spaces. He just goes.”

The next Cline release will be this fall’s Molecular Affinity, recorded with a trio featuring experimental composer Pauline Oliveros on accordion and keyboardist Thollem McDonas. The Nels Cline Singers will also be recording a set of John Zorn pieces, and Cline will reunite in the studio with 28-year-old guitar-phenom Julian Lage for a second duo album, following The Room from 2014. Lage was also part of the Lovers ensemble, with Cline a big fan: “Julian is such an inspiring virtuoso, even at his young age, and I’m continually astonished at the chemistry we have. I know that I just play better around him.” The two guitarists met through a circle of friends around Jim Hall, and living-room duets soon followed.

“Nels and I ended up playing in front of an audience exactly as we did in our living rooms,” Lage recalls. “We have similar dispositions as players, sharing a sense of drama and narrative, of form and how it can build. We push each other in the most positive way, with Nels generous and adventurous at the same time. With the master players, you don’t hear their sonic ‘brand,’ you hear their humanity. And that’s absolutely Nels, who can share all kinds of music with all kinds of audiences.”

(Originally published in the autumn 2016 issue of Listen magazine.)



Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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bradley bambarger

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.