By Michael Hamad
1:20 PM EST, December 18, 2012
Nels Cline and Julian Lage
w/Becky Kessler and Floyd Kellogg, Dec. 21, 9 p.m., $15-$20, Arch Street Tavern, 85 Arch St., Hartford, (860) 246-7610, archstreettavern.com.
You might find traces. But the Wilco records produced during Nels Cline’s nine-year tenure — Sky Blue Sky, Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love — don’t reveal much about what the guitarist does on his own time.
Cline fronts the Nels Cline Singers, a free-jazz trio with drummer Scott Amendola, bassist Trevor Dunn (and no actual singers). He collaborates with his wife, Yuka Honda (formerly of Cibo Matto) on a project called Fig. Jazz Free, a recent album of “connective improvisation” Cline recorded with Henry Kaiser, Jim Thomas, Weasel Walter and Allen Whitman, is post-jam-band rock from another planet; harmonic and melodic components are excised, while other gestures are left intact. Trajectories are deconstructed, expected climaxes and payoffs go missing, tempos collide mid-song. At times (as on “Mass Projection Jim – Fake Zero,” which contains a Hendrix ending more bombastic than Hendrix ever was), Cline’s guitar is a vintage keyboard. Elsewhere, it’s a ray gun.
His latest project, however, a duo with jazz guitarist Julian Lage, strips away the delays, distortion pedals, loops and other effects Cline’s usually associated with, a self-imposed limitation meant to open up other improvisational channels, like wearing a blindfold to sharpen your hearing.
Cline spoke to the Advocate about the collaboration by phone from his home in New York City. They’ll play their fourth-ever gig this Friday at Arch Street Tavern in Hartford.
Q: The duo you’ve created with Julian Lage is still less than a year old. I read that it came together following a gig with jazz guitarist Jim Hall.
A: Not exactly. It was following a lunch we shared with Jim Hall. I actually didn’t know about Julian and his music other than to have lunch with Jim Hall and his friends, which I started getting invited to, because I live nearby and I’d written an article about Jim for JazzTimes… I ended up at some of these lunches that happen right down the street from where I live. I heard about Julian at these lunches, because Jim loves Julian and really admires his playing. I was eager to find out who was this guy who Jim holds in such high regard.
Eventually Julian was able to make one of these lunches, and he and I started chatting. One thing led to another and I ended up YouTube-ing the man... I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. But beyond that, we started hanging out and having guitar-nerd moments, and that’s what turned into this duo. It was immediately apparent to me that this guy’s amazing, but also that we seemed to have some kind of chemistry, musically. When it turned out that he was interested in doing some free improvisation with someone, and I was the guy who does “sometimes-compositions” connected by free improvisations. So, the interest in the duo seems to be pretty high. We seem to be able to get gigs, so here we go. We’ve only done three gigs, but it’s been very rewarding and exciting as well.
Q: What is it you can sense about another player just from conversation? Do you talk about musicians that you are both inspired by, do you talk about politics, or something else?
A: In this case it was fairly unusual. I’ve played with a lot of other guitar players in duets. I enjoy it. But in this case — and I think that anyone who’s ever met Julian would agree with what I’m saying — there is something extremely unusual about Julian, besides the fact that he’s a 24-year-old virtuoso. He’s a delightful human. He’s also, like me, from California. It turns out that we have mutual friends that at one point in his late teens, his rhythm section in a trio he was leading in the Bay Area was the rhythm section from my band, the Nels Cline Singers — [drummer] Scott Amendola and [bassist] Devin Hoff. It was really funny. So, it wasn’t really talking about politics or about musicians we admire, but we did have what one might call a musical-philosophical conversation.
I’d been thinking about doing some kind of jazz-related chamber group — drumless, spatially quiet — and that’s what led me to say, “Maybe we should do some playing.” But then it turned into just the duo because of a combination of circumstances, and I guess what was immediately apparent was the chemistry and the degree of enjoyment and success we were feeling about the duo.
Q: The very first time you sat down to play with Julian — this could be a general question about any sort of collaboration — what sort of parameters did you set together? Does a certain piece of music you’ve written end up in front of both of you? What are the ground rules?
A: There’s a combination of complete freedom... and then these pieces, which started out being my pieces, which were older, that I thought could be played in this setting, and some that I wrote specifically once we started playing together. Julian, I think, is one of these guys who writes music almost every day: very prolific, tries different things. We were trying to write pieces that for the most part were extremely minimal, in terms of their length, but could be malleable. They could be used as connectors from one free improvisational moment to another. But we did turn out to have some pieces that turned out to be songs, with song-like forms. So if we’re playing a song, we’re going to talk about the dynamics and tempo, and who plays what and where, if there’s any soloing, and what we’re going to solo over. Or maybe, “We should leave this one open-ended so that we can go into something else,” you know, general musical talk. But overall, not a whole lot of detailed discussion goes on, just playing. We’ll get together and go over some of this written material, but overall what we do is to just start improvising together, because that’s sort of the core of what we’re doing. It’s also a great source of joy at this point.
Q: Was this Julian’s first foray into free improvisation?
A: Maybe publically. I’m sure there’s been some spontaneity in his jazz endeavors. He played rock and roll first, when he was a boy, but I think his interest as a teenager was in playing what has been termed “newgrass” or “dawg music,” you know, after [mandolin player] David Grisman. He played with David Grisman when he was a teenager, and I think that explains why he’s friends with Chris Thile [mandolin player with the Punch Brothers] and other California phenoms, playing out of a sort of fusion-transformed bluegrass tradition.
Most of the people in the jazz community in New York think of Julian as this sort of straight-ahead jazz guy. Certainly, this explains why he can play with Gary Burton or why he can play in Jim Hall’s group. But to what extent he was doing free improvisation publicly, I don’t really know. I don’t think he was. People seem to be surprised. I’m sure that because he has such a curious and penetrating musical mind, he was doing it somewhere, but I never really asked him. I think this is probably his first public foray into this degree of freedom in performance.
Q: For you, knowing that he has this newgrass/fusion background in his playing, does that make you either more open to or pushing toward that side of things in what you do together?
A: It certainly was encouraging to know that he wasn’t really a mainstream — what some people call “jazzy jazz” — guy. And in fact, he had kind of a sense of humor about that reputation. But ultimately, it didn’t matter to me at all. It shouldn’t matter to anybody. As long as what we’re doing is what we’re doing, I don’t care what people prefer outside of that or what people think of them as focusing on, or what their “thing” is.
It was immediately apparent to me the degree of musicality. His playing is undeniably very advanced and virtuosic, so it’s rather exhilarating for me in that way, and it’s also kicking my ass pretty hard to keep up with him... I wanted to start something with us that’s very direct and more in his wheelhouse, to refresh my own palette, I’m eschewing all use of effects pedals and looping and all the different things people have tended to associate with me in the last few years, even though I have spent large amounts of my life playing acoustic guitar. That’s a lesser-known chapter of my ’80s life, when I was doing quite a bit of that, publicly... It just comes down to narrow parameters, in the sense of tone and dynamics and things like that. It’s two arch-top guitars and amps and a little bit of reverb.
Q: One of the things that goes away, when you aren’t using effects or loops, is the ability to sustain, to have some drone notes, the ability to create sounds that extend across time. Has that been a refreshing challenge?
A: I don’t think of it as that much of a challenge in the sense that... we both know what to do, I guess. If there’s going to be a drone, we’ll just figure out a way to make a drone. There are millions of technical ways to do this. It’s not going to be the same as a feedback drone or a loop drone... Julian’s actually getting really interested in various electronic developments and in looping and delays, and we may address that at some point. Maybe we’ll create another setting for that. I think at the moment the only wrinkle we could put in this duo is the inclusion of acoustic instruments. Maybe when we record, we’ll do some acoustic duets.
The limitation, so-called, of having no delays and looping devices and distortion is not much of a limitation at this point, and it’s kind of liberating for me, because it does remind me of the days when I was playing acoustic guitar in a composed/improvised group called Quartet Music, or what I was doing with Charlie Haden in the ’80s. It’s very freeing to not have so many options sometimes. Seriously.
Q: It must be cleansing and refreshing, and also challenging.
A: Yes, and also incredibly fun. But I have to say that it really comes down to the fact that, when Julian and I start playing, we play music that we are really excited by. It takes on a life of its own in that regard. Some of these considerations fall away, and the music takes over.
Q: So, you’ve done these three gigs together, and this will be the fourth. Is there a sense in your mind as to the trajectory of the three performances so far? Has there been an arc that’s either interested or surprised you?
A: It could be a mood swing. As you are sort of pointing out, I guess we are still learning. But the last gig we did was last week at The Stone, here in New York City, and Julian was pretty wild. And he’s getting wilder [laughs]. We play the music, so there is some containment, but I think that on some nights it will be wilder than others. I’m still figuring it out. The music, at times, is very active. I like to joke that I play more notes in the first five minutes of a gig with Julian than I do in an entire Wilco hour-long gig. There are a lot of notes flying around, hopefully with coherent and enjoyable musical and aesthetic purpose.
Q: Is it active harmonically, or more on the surface? I guess they go hand-in-hand sometimes.
A: It’s highly contrapuntal. A lot of the harmony is improvised. We do have a couple of pieces with changes, which sometimes we play, sometimes we don’t play. A lot of the pieces are harmonically... I guess you would say somewhat dissonant or somewhat leading. There’s a lot of coloristic harmony, and I’m extremely interested in that in terms of playing with other guitarists as it is, because I not only like the natural chorusing and the general texture of two guitars that one can achieve, but also the polyphony that one can start dabbling in.
Then there are other pieces that have sections that are technically set out to be modal sections, where we are basically setting up a drone or a vamp, an ostinato, and then a soloist playing a mostly modal solo moment, you know. So, the music is a combination of tonal and atonal, really. And I think that it’s intimate and sometimes it’s hyper-rhythmic. I think we are trying to achieve the usual balance of what we consider to be “enjoyable” music to listen to, not just to play, so there’s a lot of tension and release, I hope, and a lot of emotion connected to the music. It’s not just some sort of scientific exercise. But I don’t know if everyone’s going to be as compelled by the moments of polyphony in the music as we are. Rest assured, it will move on to some other areas at some point.
It’s also pretty tuneful. It relates to jazz, mostly, in some ways to jazz as we know it since the ’50s or the early ’60s, but certainly from the ’70s to the present. It’s a little more all-inclusive harmonically and stylistically than jazz in the ’50s. Mainly, it’s about our personalities and how we interact and our aesthetics, which are mostly melodic and harmonic and rhythmic interest, of any kind of music. There are elements that — maybe because of the instruments, or because of the influence of string instruments — you can hear of elements of what we might term “world music.” But if you’re going to play guitar-ish music, you are going to be dealing with music from Africa and Brazil. That’s just going to happen, unless you’re living in a cave or something.
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