The cover art for the Nels Cline Singers’ double-CD Initiate consists entirely of pictures of the Large Hadron Collider. This makes sense. There’s a major mad-scientist vibe to this music. Just as the LHC has prompted fears of inadvertently creating a black hole and thus dooming mankind, Cline’s brand of thorny, noisy, technologically sophisticated jazz seems perpetually and tantalizingly on the verge of collapse.
After a fragile collage of loops opens the album, the trio slams in with “Floored”. Over an intensely funky groove that evokes Jack Johnson-era Miles Davis, Cline provides a six-minute master class in why he’s a guitarist worth paying attention to. Harmonically forward-thinking and impossibly dextrous, Cline quickly moves past the standard jazz vocabulary to incorporate thoroughly novel touches—effects pedals sample riffs and play them back in reverse, and screeching blasts of white noise finish what ordinary dissonance started. Miles Davis’ music of the early ‘70s seems a valuable point of reference, in that one hesitates to call this jazz in the traditional sense. At this point it’s just music.
Good music, too. The studio half benefits from being one of Cline’s more accessible offerings. The funkiness of “Floored”, the Bill Frisell-like Americana of “Grow Closer”, the epic rock textures of “Red Line to Greenland” provide a starting point for those who might have struggled to get past the more intense dissonances of Draw Breath, the last offering from the Singers, or last year’s solo effort Coward.
If the first disc has a flaw, it’s that there’s a certain sameness to the Singers’ method. Most of the tracks are built around a phrase, riff, or chord sequence, which they repeat with variations until they’ve finished with it. Cline’s guitar will eventually make a strange noise—some tracks are nothing more than the most interesting sound he can conjure up at a given moment. While those sounds are usually pretty damn cool, “Grow Closer” and “Divining” wind up emerging as highlights by holding off on some of the digital trickery and focusing on slightly more conventional melodicism. In this context, when the loops and samples do surface a few minutes into “Divining”, they are much more effective.
The live disc is more of a mixed bag. Versions of Joe Zawinul’s “Boogie Woogie Waltz” and Carla Bley’s “And Now the Queen, alongside Cline’s own “Blues, Too” (a tribute to jazz guitar giant Jim Hall), provide a clearer sense of Cline’s relationship to jazz. “Thurston County”, originally from Coward, benefits greatly from its new trio setting. When bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola enter about halfway through, it feels like day breaking, before all its disparate elements cohere into a tense rocker. The minimalist, repetitive “Forge” is significantly harder going, though, and the 11-minute avant-garde spray of “Fly Fly” will test the patience of all but the most forgiving and open-minded listeners.
I came to Cline’s music as I imagine most do nowadays, wondering what the new hotshot guitarist in Wilco does when left to his own devices. Fans of that band’s genre-bending tendencies will not be disappointed. Cline’s take on jazz reveals a musically omnivorous sensibility, restlessly creative and very, very cool. Check it out.