Nels Cline: Coward / Alex Cline: Continuation

Nels Cline

The twin brothers Cline, guitarist Nels and percussionist Alex, have been making remarkable and uncategorizable music together since each was 11. Jazz players of a modern sort, they move freely in the space created by a vast array of modern music. Nels, most recently renowned for joining Wilco, has recorded a series of canny instrumental albums shifting between daring jazz tributes (New Monastery: The Music of Andrew Hill) and distortion-laced original music. Alex has tended toward more meditative themes and textured ensembles as a leader.

Both Clines began as improvisers in Quartet Music, the group led by bassist Eric von Essen and featuring violinist Jeff Gauthier during the 1980s. Later, Gauthier founded Crypto, the California-based label that has recently released both of the brothers’ work. Gauthier’s taste in music and production skills have made Crypto one of the bellwethers of improvised music in the last decade. It is wonderful, then, that Gauthier has chosen simultaneously to release strong, idiosyncratic new solo efforts by each of the Clines at the end of the label’s 10th year in action.

Nels Cline’s Coward is anything but. This is a solo album of overdubbed pieces featuring only the guitarist. It shows the incredible range that is possible with six strings and boundless imagination. Jazz listeners will find the kind of guitar-based tunes and exploratory improvising that used to be associated with Ralph Towner or John Abercrombie — a kind of chamber-jazz, perhaps, that is smarter than it is swinging. Rock listeners might recognize the textures and daring of Sonic Youth. But the best approach is to listen with no expectations at all. Let your ears take a ride.

Coward is less a rollercoaster than a house of mirrors. Cline makes the most out of surprise, wit, subtlety, and texture. Neither electric nor acoustic guitars dominate the tracks. In fact, there is often a sense that you are not listening to individual instruments but rather to a bed of stringed sounds that could come from instruments yet unnamed. “Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven” is a nearly 20-minute performance that uses a set of loosely strummed guitars — acoustic, electric, funny tunings, who knows? — as a cushion for various improvisations and ruminations in mic. The music, as unusual as it is in this track, nevertheless generates a brooding beauty. Cline shows a continual knack for creating rolling patterns that fascinate your ears, even as his playing flirts with the irrational or atonal.

Many of the shorter tracks here, however, are easily accessible. “Prayer Wheel” twines a gorgeous melody and solo through and around a set of harmonically complex arpeggios. “The Divine Homegirl” flirts with the sound of baroque guitar, even as it allows Cline to bend strings with abandon. “The Nomad’s Home” uses a slide guitar sound to give a sense of twang to an otherwise delicate arrangement.

Other tracks push closer to the experimental. “Thurston County” sets heavily processed electric squiggles atop densely overdubbed chords. “X Change(s)” sounds like a daring free improvisation that happens to involve several different guitars in a stop-start set of adventures. Then there are two useful experiments in texture: both “Epiphyllum” and “Cymbidium” (kinds of cactus and orchid, respectively) remain harmonically and melodically static as Cline stacks textures and waves and drones into riveting sandwiches of sound.

The opus on Coward is the six-part suite “Onan”, which uses all of Cline’s strategies to create what might be a kind biography. “Amniotica” sounds eerily like some kind of quietly rumbling pregnancy, with spooky strains of life coming from a distance. “Lord and Lady” sets up a stately kind of country scene, whereas “Dreams in the Mirror” uses a distorted vocal utterance to suggest a slow-motion Valium trip. Each successive section of “Onan” moves quickly to a new sonic bon-bon, culminating in “The Liberator”, which delivers the closest thing that Coward has to a rock song — and a joyous one.

Alex Cline’s Continuation plainly has meditative qualities that connect it to other projects by the percussionist, but it has ambitions well beyond the relaxing. This is a generously melodic set of compositions, each arranged with stylistic variety and populated with a balanced group sound. Jeff Gauthier’s sumptuous violin is paired with Peggy Lee on cello, giving the album a cushion of chamber delicacy. Scott Walton’s acoustic bass is often free to play melody or counterpoint as well as to anchor the scenery as in a straight jazz band.

While Cline both colors and propels the tunes, Myra Melford is the band’s primary soloist and critical voice. Playing both piano and harmonium, Melford is given the room to range freely across these tunes. “Clearing Our Streams”, a long bass meditation that gives way to a funky groove, pushes Melford into a thrilling harmonium solo centered around a non-Western mode. On “Steadfast”, the Latin groove propels a garrulous piano solo that busily defies the notion that Continuation is some kind of New Age mumbo-jumbo. Gauthier’s violin solo on the same tune is lovely but entirely conventional, which just emphasizes that much more how critical Melford’s presence is in the ensemble.

Two of the tracks are long-form compositions. “Submerge” is a droning arrangement for strings and harmonium that sets up a long percussion interlude for Cline. The photo of Cline’s kit on the CD case might lead you to think that he was a latter-day Neil Peart, so many drums and gizmos does it contain. But Cline’s solo is the farthest thing from a roto-tom crazed prog-rock chopfest, instead emphasizing texture and melody as played on various exotic percussion toys. This “solo” ultimately blends perfectly back into the searching string arrangement.

“On the Bones of the Homegoing Thunder” is just as ambitious but considerably more dynamic, from an opening during which the strings bend enticingly in and out of tune to a free-bop piano trio section that lets Melford fly and swing like mad. And then on to a bass/percussion duet, to a pensive melody for violin over a consonant piano vamp — this track blends disparate elements into a panoramic whole. With both “outside” and “inside” elements, as well as sections that take attractive melody and rough it up with a harsher edge, “Homegoing Thunder” makes the most of Cline’s ensemble and creates a riveting listening experience that honors both the meditative and the jazz sides of the drummer’s vision.

Both Coward and Continuation ask for patience. But they repay the same generously. In exchange for paying careful attention to what Nels and Alex Cline have to say, you will get drawn into a musical narrative that is witty, serious, beatific, and introspective. This kind of music — potentially maudlin, indulgent, or dull — needs to handled with care. In these two discs, you’re in the best of hands.

RATING 7 / 10
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