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Published: 2017/05/18
by Dean Budnick

Nels Cline: Impressionistic Compositions

This Saturday, May 20 marks the official debut of the Nels Cline Four. Cline will take the stage at New York City’s (Le) Poisson Rouge alongside fellow guitarist Julian Lage (the two previously recorded the Room record and continue to gig together as a duo) as well as Scott Colley (double bass) and Tom Rainey (drums). This is one of many projects on the horizon for Cline who will perform his Lovers album with 17 accompanists in Brooklyn on August 5 and also maintain a steady summer tour schedule with Wilco (on June 23, Wilco will open its Solid Sound Festival by performing an album selected by fans and in the following conversation, Cline also shares his personal picks).

Let’s start with the Nels Cline Four, in which you’re expanding on your collaboration with Julian Lage. How did this come about and what are you hoping to achieve?

Last summer I had a residency at the Stone, and one of the things that I did was this quartet. When Julian and I first met and started playing together it was one of the greatest gifts to my life—musically and personally—because of the kind of chemistry that we seem to have. It was magical right away, and it was challenging. At the same time, it has this kind of ease about it. Everything about it is marvelous, as far as I’m concerned.

But after a few months or year of playing, we thought “Gee, I wonder what it would be like to try to do this kind of stuff with a rhythm section?” Then we sort of fantasized about “Well who would the rhythm section be?” At that time, Julian was doing stuff with a laptop, in addition to his guitar playing when he was playing with Eric Harland, for example. I wondered, “Oh, will I use effects pedals, and do looping as I tend to do?” Later, I said, “Well, let’s try it with a rhythm section!” and so we did.

I believe Scott Colley had been saying “Hey, let’s play some music together” ever since I started hanging out with him one of these lunches with Jim Hall—they were called the “crony lunches.” I had known of Scott since he started in Los Angeles, where I’m from, although we were never pals back then. Then Tom Rainey’s one of my favorite musicians on the planet, and somebody I’ve played on and off with for a few years now. Julian had never really heard Tom but he played extensively with Scott. So, I just thought it was kind of a natural combination. I sounded Julian out on his thoughts and he thought it sounded great. The irony of this is I didn’t know if Scott and Tom had ever even played together, but it turns out that, in the ‘90s, they played hundreds of gigs together but hadn’t played together in the last few years. I didn’t learn that until we were at the Stone about to play our set. So I found that rather amusing, because we didn’t rehearse the music for the Stone, except for like 45 minutes before the show.

I’m trying to finish some more ambitious compositions to mix in with what I intend to be a lot of improvising with this quartet. I’ve also decided not to engage my looping, effects-laden guitar world with this music, so that it’s actually really pretty much a natural extension, in most regards, of the duo with Julian. I had to ask Julian—I don’t want this to affect our duo, because this is really under my name, and I’m writing the music, even though there’s gonna be a couple of cover songs involved. But he’s totally cool with it.

I want to develop a language—especially with the two guitars, but also as improvisers, as an ensemble—that’s very specific, and that means it’s gonna be really, really hard to do this band live very much. Nobody’s replaceable, really, so I’ll just have to do it for its own sake just like everything else I do and see what happens. We have some dates booked for Europe next winter, and I’m going to record the band after we do these two gigs—we play in Canada at the Victoriaville Festival, the day after the LPR gig. I’m just gonna call them demos, because I feel like as we continue, the language of the group will become more singular, and then maybe we’ll record again and I’ll put something together from the two sessions.

Can you talk a bit more about what you have in mind for repertoire?

I want it to be kind of a modernistic jazz group with tendencies toward impressionistic composing, the style of which I’ve been doing for a long time, which is in some ways inspired by composers like Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie and maybe to some extent also Joe Zawinul. We’ll investigate that balance between extemporaneous so-called free playing and some tightly structured melodic, harmonic material. That’s kind of what Julian and I do. The rhythm section in this case is so capable, and so skilled, and at the same time, can negotiate these areas with considerable coherence and ease, and I’m excited about what can eventually develop, particularly on the improvisational side, with these monster players. It’s also kind of low volume compared to some of the things that I’ve been involved in, which is refreshing. I also realized after I put this all together that everybody in the band is from California (laughs).

You mentioned Jim Hall crony lunches. How did you come to participate and what were they like?

I was interviewed for a movie about Bill Frisell by an Australian woman, Emma [Franz] and she arrived with a copy of the Bill Frisell/Jim Hall duo record, from Brian Camelio, for me to listen to as a gift—Brian from ArtistShare, who is a guitarist himself, kind of managed Jim in the later years. She said, “Brian Camelio said if you haven’t already, you should meet Jim Hall, because he lives a block from you.” I was living, at the time, on West 11th Street in the West Village, and he lived on West 12th Street, both of us between 5th and 6th Avenue. And he said “Brian saw your article in Jazz Times , ’10 Tracks by Jim Hall,’ and showed it to Jim, and here’s his information.” So, I wrote to him. I said, “Thank you for the CD,” and he wrote back saying, “Look, we have these lunches to try to get Jim out of the apartment every so often, at the end of your street. We’d love you to come to one of these and meet Jim.” And I said, “Oh, come on man. I’m not a real jazz guy or anything, I don’t know,” and he said, “Jim would love you to come.”

So, eventually it was schedulable, and Scott Colley, John Pondel, Steve LaSpina—you had all these people—Dave Binney, sometimes, Chris Potter, and eventually, Julian, would have lunch with Jim. I made a few of these. In fact, Julian and I, and Adam Rogers, did a birthday lunch, then five or six days later, Jim passed away. The most talking I ever did to Jim was at that lunch. He could walk really, really slowly back to his apartment, so he and I chatted on the way back. He would just ask me some questions, because I was pretty shy at these things. I would talk a lot to Adam, and people that I knew. But that’s what these were. They were organized by Brian Camelio to keep Jim in contact with his friends, and it was really pleasant. Jim was really lovely, and affable and funny. He loved corny humor, and a lot of these guys like Scott, and Steve, had played with Jim for years and years. So, it was really warm, and to be included in that at all was pretty marvelous.

When Julian finally came to one of these that’s when we met, and we instantly started chatting, and hit it off, and ended up playing, just improvising, right there in the living room on West 11th Street.

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