With his new band the Nels Cline 4, the noteworthy jazz/rock/noise guitarist has dialed back certain aggressions. What this new band throws down on Currents, Constellations is not as bold as Cline’s past trio the Nels Cline Singers. Things he’s done under his own name like Destroy All Nels Cline, Instrumentals, Dirty Baby, and his live set with Tim Berne and Jim Black do a more thorough job of mowing down all expectations of the guitar’s role in the jazz world. But when we’re talking about Nels Cline, we’re also talking amount a melting of genres were the element of surprise can find a home anywhere along a sliding scale. In other words, he doesn’t have to be different all the time.
A few years ago, Cline teamed up with a young guitarist named Julian Lage to record a duet album named Room. Lage’s presence must have had a mellowing effect on Cline who then turned his attention to recording old jazz standards on a double album named Lovers. Lage’s presence was a factor on those two albums, and it’s a factor on Currents, Constellations where he and Cline make up half the band. That just leaves the rhythm section with Scott Colley on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. A two guitar attack for an entire album? Is that wise? I’ll go ahead and tell you that yes, it is a good move since Cline and Lage aren’t exactly noodle-heads. Right after he joined Wilco, Cline even told a guitar magazine that he prefers not to have long, meandering solos on his albums since he doesn’t prefer that as a listener (an odd thing to hear from a guy who was going to have to replicate those A Ghost is Born solos on stage).
Cline and Lage sometimes work together like a piano and a sax: textured netting to go underneath a melodic lead. At other times, they behave like two saxes, like when that melodic lead needs a good harmonization. Or on the funky third track “Imperfect 10”, one of them is grooving along like a baritone sax. It’s also really cool how the entire band can stop on a dime at the end. No crash around, no dragging out the noise, no letting anything fade away, they can just halt the whole thing.
“Swing Coast” gives us all an insight into Rainey’s flexibility as a drummer. Sure it “swings,” but only briefly. The rest of the time, the pattern keeps getting jumbled up only to break down halfway through completely. “As Close as That” is the slow, minor-key waltz normally reserved for acts that are known for their monster ballads. If that kind of thing bores you, then your hard bop prayers will be answered by “Amenette”, another odd duck that plays with meter and tempo as if it were putty.
Currents, Constellations concludes with three great tracks. A faithful reading of Carla Bley’s “Temporarily” is followed by the album’s centerpiece, “River Mouth (Parts 1 & 2)”. Almost ten minutes in length, this piece builds much like the meditative work that Cline meticulously laid down on his Coward album of solo guitar. The first part is rubato soul-searching while the second half channels the Americana pastoral into a steady stream kept flowing by Rainey’s tom work. Closing number “For Each, a Flower” is the band’s answer to the question “can you make your own ‘Peace Piece’?”
It’s true; there are a few albums scattered throughout Nels Cline’s career that I feel are better and more fearless than Currents, Constellations. But Cline has had a long career, and many of his releases have exceeded expectations, so that’s not really a criticism. The less time you spend pondering the burden of expectations, the better, because that’s how you can get Currents, Constellations to shine brightest for you.