Nels Cline and Julian Lage – Room [TrackList follows] – Mack Avenue/ Cryptogramophone

Nels Cline and Julian Lage – Room [TrackList follows] – Mack Avenue/ Cryptogramophone MAC1091, 56:46 [11/24/14] ****:

(Nels Cline – co-producer, 1965 Gibson Barney Kessel archtop electric guitar and 1962 Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar (right channel); Julian Lage – co-producer, Linda Manzer archtop electric guitar and 1939 Martin 000-18 acoustic guitar (left channel))

At first glance, this twin-guitar outing might appear an unconventional pairing. Nels Cline is most known as lead guitarist for alt-rock/Americana band Wilco as well as a career (dating to the late 1970s) which encompasses outsider/experimental jazz (he’s collaborated with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, worked with Yoko Ono and Julius Hemphill, and led his own groups, including the all-instrumental Nels Cline Singers). Julian Lage is a former child prodigy, who has typically been involved in traditional jazz and classical music (he trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, is currently a member of Gary Burton’s New Quartet, and recorded with mandolinist David Grisman). But on the ten-track, nearly hour-long Room, Lage and Cline make melodic music with an auditory edge: the result is adventurous and beautiful. It’s easily this year’s best dual-guitar project.

The set-up is straightforward. Lage—who uses either a Linda Manzer archtop electric guitar or a 1939 Martin 000-18 acoustic guitar—is on the left channel. Cline—who forsakes his usual effects pedals, switches between a 1965 Gibson Barney Kessel archtop electric guitar and a 1962 Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar—is on the right channel. So, it is relatively easy to follow who is doing what: otherwise, the surprise is to hear how each musician complements the other, and how sometimes one will do something which listeners may not anticipate. But that’s one of the things about this album: expectations can be put away. Think you know what Cline can or will do? Think again. Imagine you have Lage quantified based on what he’s done before? Think again, as well. While this is the first, full-length Cline/Lage get-together, this is not the duo’s initial release. In April, 2012 Cline and Lage recorded a 7” vinyl release which included Cline’s “Racy,” which had a limited pressing of 500. “Racy” can also be found on Room, alongside six other Cline compositions, two credited to Lage, and one written by Lage and Cline. In another way, though, the material is fresh. Although some tunes were created previously to stepping into the studio, these are live performances, with no overdubs, with spontaneity and improvisation at the fore.

One attribute which pervades this album is the spirit of Jim Hall, who has had an impactful influence on both Cline and Lage. Room is dedicated to the late guitarist and there are several places his inventiveness can be noticed. Cline’s “Blues, Too” (inspired by the late Hall) originally surfaced on the Nels Cline Singers’ 2004 CD, The Giant Pin, and resurfaced on their 2010 Initiate double-disc. Cline explains, “Since I met Julian through Jim, it seemed fitting to try [this tune] with Julian playing the bass part.” This seven-minute rendition is complex but evocative, with some Hall references, such as the main theme, and an up-tempo drone section which hints at how Hall utilized Latin tints and open-string treatments. Cline states, “With Julian, I feel that the piece is closest to my original idea and intent.” A live, extended version of “Blues, Too” (with some audible hum), officially posted by Cline, can be streamed here. Cline’s two-part “Freesia/The Bond”—at 10:30, the CD’s longest cut—is an additional conception which suggests Hall’s essence. This multi-tiered marvel progressively maneuvers through various types of music, from post-bop to swing music, from lyrical modernism to familiar pop (there is one motif which glides in that many listeners will instantly recognize), and all centered via an elaborate design which never loses a bewitching melodic support.

This is a full and complete showcase of each performer’s distinct style where the players blend in grandeur. It is quite simply, joyous to hear. The nearly four-minute “Racy” benefits from a twofold lead guitar strategy. Cline and Lage begin with a compound arpeggio preamble, and then work their way through striking to-and-fro soloing and a confident, soulful bass vamp. One more memorable, lengthy excursion is Cline’s “The Scent of Light,” which shifts from one emotional peak to another, and includes graceful rubato reveries, unpredictable moments, polygonal harmonics and a meticulous rhythmic flow. The irregular time signatures (7/8 to 11/8) may seem mental flossing, but in the hands of Lage and Cline, they are organic and immaculate. Cline’s shorter, up-beat “Odd End” has a similarity in approach, with mainly 7/8 time, with some 4/4 mingled within the framework. This piece deftly balances Django Reinhardt-inclined gypsy swing, John Fahey-like instrumental folk and odd-timbered blues. Cline and Lage’s coupled chromatic tones which cross octaves are luminous and vigorous. Lage’s two numbers bookend Room, and collectively form a sort of overview and encapsulation. The brief introduction, “Abstract 12,” develops from a repetitive pattern which then heads into intimate vectored interaction, including an improvised sensation which infuses the other tracks. Cline and Lage’s acoustic guitars are affectingly mutual on Lage’s closer, the artful “Calder,” named after iconic sculptor Alexander Calder. The two guitarists meld magically, akin to the way a hanging mobile will move in a breeze, all segments poised reassuringly. Not only is the music impressive, but so is the engineering. Room was diligently recorded by Christopher Allen at Sear Sound, NYC. Lage and Cline are delectably documented; each chord, strum, plucked note and fret run is warmly rendered, and bass and treble sounds are redolent, detailed and audibly precise. The corresponding mastering was done by Dan Millice at The Engine Room Audio, NYC.

TrackList: Abstract 12; Racy; The Scent of Light; Whispers from Eve; Blues, Too; Odd End; Amenette; Freesia/The Bond; Waxman; Calder.

—Doug Simpson

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