Jazz Notes Intel: Nels Cline Expands With NC4, Mary Halvorson Introduces Code Girl, Composer Brilliance at Three Dot Lounge
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, April 5, 2018
Deemed as one of the greatest guitarists of all time thanks in part to his high-profile gig with rock band Wilco since 2004, Nels Cline can be an experimental monster as an intrepid slayer of strings. While he can burst with blasts and surge with formidable microtonal avant experimentation, it’s when Nels stretches with raw-energy subtleties and calming beauty that make him a rare guitarist who speaks volumes on the improvisational state of jazz guitar. Add to that when he perfectly partners with risen-star guitar slinger Julian Lage. The cross-generational collaboration (Nels is 62, Julian 30) makes for an edgy, mysterious, sublime outing that speaks of freedom and adventure.
In 2014, the pair decided to join creative forces on the duo recording Room, which not only resulted in a jazz-world hit but also sparked a friendship that continues to this day. The latest harvest of that kinship comes with the new Blue Note Records album, Currents, Constellations, by the Nels Cline 4 which features Lage and the dynamite rhythm team of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Tom Rainey. “It may sound like I’m overstating but the musical relationship that has sprung up between Julian and me has been truly profound,” says Nels. “After we first recorded, we were dedicated to keeping the duo together, and we plan to do more duo albums. I had heard about Julian when guitarists would hang with [the late guitar master] Jim Hall at his crony lunches. So I looked Julian up on YouTube, and I was blown away. I was almost intimidated although Julian is one of the sweetest people.”
The pair started playing together when they both lived in the West Village. “It was immediate,” Nels says. “He was who I needed to be playing with as a sensitive collaborator, on both a chromatic and modern level. We started touring as a duo and magic would happen every night. It’s been truly unique and something we cherish so much. The quartet casually grew out of the duo. We talked about it, and two years ago when I had a residency at The Stone, we tried it. The quartet has continued, and it’s the most fun experiment.” Because they’re all so busy playing in other settings, Nels calls it “the most impossible-to-schedule gig ever.”
With the exception of a free-playing Carla Bley cover that the classic Jimmy Giuffre 3 recorded, Currents, Constellations features Cline compositions. The recording blasts open with the upbeat, dense-harmony “Furtive” where the two guitarists spin around each other in different directions then link up and return together. “Everything is numbered,” Nels explains. “I have cues for different themes where I hold up my fingers and then everyone interacts. Then I’ll hold up my hand with another number and we improvise after that.”
With two guitars flying, is there any worry about crashing into each other? Nels says that with the exception of the rocking, joy de vivre tune “Imperfect 10, which has a “bad-ass solo vibe,” the mode of playing is “conversational or counterpoint. There’s no discussion. We just do it.”
The group toys with styles on “Swing Ghost ’59,” which Nels explains is an amusing tale of the conflict between swing time and straight time. “Couched in this piece is the whole idea of swing fading out, which happened in the late ‘50s which is why the year is in the title,” he says. “So it’s kind of a retro swing where the swing goes and the straight time crushes it.” In this case it’s the hard-rock chording that ends the piece.
Most of the sings on the album range in the four-minute length except for the two-part “River Mouth,” that Nels wrote while he was on tour with Wilco. “It’s a huge challenge for me to write for brevity, so this let me go,” he says. “It’s free playing, but it also gives Julian and me to chance to play unison lines.” The recording ends gorgeously with “For Each, A Flower.” “It’s written for a whole bunch of people who have passed away recently, all under 70,” he says, noting, for example, pianist Geri Allen and guitarist John Abercrombie. “It’s stripped down, and I play it like a coda.”
While Nels isn’t officially on the Blue Note artist roster, this is his second recording for the label, the first being the ambitious 2016 two-CD gem, Lovers. It was a project that began back in the ‘80s as Nels kept writing new material on the title theme. “It was random,” he says of the first recording. “An unmentionable label had interest, but then they never listened to it. So I was ready to release it myself. We had the album cover done and it was mastered. But my manager ran into Don Was, told him about the album, and after listening Don decided that he wanted to license the record.” The same thing happened with the Currents, Constellations project. “We recorded everything, brought it to Don, and we got the green light for them to exclusively license it even though officially it’s on my own label, The Alstro Imprint.”
NC4 premieres the April 13 release at Le Poisson Rouge on April 16 after which the group goes on a 10-date European tour. “It’s a good time to devote to the quartet,” Nels says. “Wilco decided to take a year off, so I’ve got the time. Touring with them is not grueling at all. It’s cush. There’s even a guitar tech. It’s a totally different life.”
As for LPR, it’s like a second home to Nels. “Ever since I first started playing there, I’ve had a warm feeling for it,” he says. “They’re amazing guys. They’re nice to us.” He even got married there to Yuka Hondo of the group Cibo Matto. They had a Shinto marriage in Japan in 2010 and returned to New York where Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, using his Universal Life Church certificate, married them again at LPR with a reception that included all of their artist friends.
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SCENE OF THE UNHEARD: MARY HALVORSON’S CODE GIRL
I talked with Mary Halvorson last summer for the DownBeat Critics Poll issue when she won the guitarist of the year as well as topped three rising-star categories: jazz artist, jazz group and composer. At the end of our conversation, I asked her about her upcoming multifarious projects with the biggest marvel being her latest band Code Girl that focused on her lyrics for the first time sung by Amirtha Kidambi. She said the music had “a lyricism and a strange intenseness.” She added, “It’s a lot of improv. It’s not drastically different from how I compose for my other groups, but it is a little more stripped down.”
She celebrated her angularly adventurous two-CD debut Code Girl (Firehouse 12 Records) at Jazz Standard for two nights, April 3 and 4. Before the first set of the opening night, I asked Mary if she was going to join in with vocals, and she said, “Oh no, but at our sound check I did sing because Amirtha was held up.” Any recorded evidence of those vocals? She smiled. No. A few minutes later Mary led her band—bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill taking the place of Ambrose Akinmusire on the recording—into an other-worldly journey of her abstract poetry (wonderfully sung by the gifted Amirtha), bent chords that sounded out of tune, dissonant lyricism, perplexing guitar lines—a complex architecture of refracted urgency and surprise. There were intriguing guitar-trumpet conversations, six-string velocity and percussive plucks. Gentle applause was offered on the earlier pieces, but by the end (the most mild-mannered tune “Drop the Needle”) the listeners became attuned to Mary’s explorations and gave the band a rousing reply. Her music is difficult to comprehend yet fascinating all the same. It’s not your typical mainstream jazz but more a reconstructed transformation of the genre that deserves rapt attention.
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THREE DOT LOUNGE . . .
Touting itself as New York’s longest-running jazz concert series, Highlights in Jazz, presented by jazz impresario Jack Kleinsinger, launches its second-to-last show in its 45th season on May 10 with esteemed pianist Dick Hyman & Friends at BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center…A growing number of drummers—cite: Mark Guiliana, Tyshawn Sorey—are stepping outside of the typical rhythmic pathways to embrace a broader view compositionally, with John Hollenback exhibiting optimistic jazz/classical/world music brilliance on his Large Ensemble latest, All Can Work (New Amsterdam Records)…With its majestic, percussive and playful stories, it is one of 2018’s top recordings that rewards with frequent spins…Hollenbeck joins up with pianist Ethan Iverson (ex-Bad Plus) and bassist Christopher Tordini in simpatico support of tenor saxophonist/composer Patrick Zimmerli’s marvelous lyrical, witty and emotive suite, Clockworks (Songline Recordings), that arcs on the click-clock theme of time with engaging songs teeming with improvisational flair and in some stretches polyrhythmic glee…More spins recommended…The band celebrates the release on April 14 in the Ecstatic Music Festival at Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Hall (129 W 67th St., KaufmanMusicCenter.org).
Cover: Nels Cline; photo: Nathan West.