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The Nels Cline Singers – Macroscope [TrackList follows] – Mack Ave.

The Nels Cline Singers – Macroscope [TrackList follows] – Mack Avenue MAC1085P, 58:29 [4/29/14] ****:

(Nels Cline – electric guitar, electric 12-string guitar (tracks 3, 5, 8), loops, voice (tracks 3, 6), drum buddy (tracks 4, 7, 9), slot drum (track 4), lap steel (track 5), acoustic guitar (track 6), electronic tamboura (track 8), megamouth (track 9), co-producer; Trevor Dunn – contrabass (tracks 1, 4, 6, 8, 10), bass guitar (tracks 2-3, 5, 7, 9); Scott Amendola – drums, shaker (track 3), loop (track 3), electric mbira (track 5), electronics (tracks 6-10), balloons (track 10); Yuka Honda – electric piano (tracks 3-4),OP-1 (track 6); Cyro Baptista – caxixi, cuica (track 3), miscellaneous percussion (tracks 4-5, 8); Josh Jones – congas (tracks 3-5), shekere (track 3); David Breskin – palm and finger skin (track 6), co-producer; Zeena Parkins – electric harp (track 7))

It has continually been difficult to categorize guitarist Nels Cline. The Los Angeles native (who now resides in NYC) is usually lumped into jazz, since he composes and/or performs modern improvisational music and has collaborated with jazz artists such as Julian Lage, Charlie Haden and Medeski, Martin & Wood. But he’s also the lead guitarist for alternative rock/alt-country band Wilco, and has worked with former Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, so Cline is also linked to the rock music community. Alongside his Wilco duties, Cline also fronts the Nels Cline Trio and the thoroughly instrumental Nels Cline Singers.

This year, the Nels Cline Singers connected with the Mack Avenue label, which ironically skews toward pop jazz or mainstream jazz. The hour-long Macroscope is the Singers’ first release on the Mack Avenue imprint and is the group’s most accessible album to date. But that doesn’t mean Cline has morphed into Kevin Eubanks or Stanley Jordan (two other guitarists also on the Mack Avenue roster). In typical Cline fashion, the ten-track Macroscope covers a lot of sonic territory, from Hendrix-like guitar soloing to smooth lounge jazz (which happens within the same tune; the calm-and-the-storm cut “Red Before Orange”). Cline’s eclectic quality and no-boundaries approach, however, always comes across as organic, not forced. Other musicians might attempt this cross-genre methodology, but Cline is purely naturalistic in his unique style. Macroscope has been issued in CD and download versions, as well as a vinyl LP which has a different sequence and is minus three tracks. This review refers to the CD configuration.

This is not merely a trio project. The opening two numbers, “Companion Piece” and “Canales’ Cabeza,” and the two closers, “Hairy Mother” and “Sascha’s Book of Frogs,” feature Cline, longtime drummer Scott Amendola and new bassist Trevor Dun (who switches between contrabass and bass guitar). The other six compositions have several guests, including Cline’s wife, Yuka Honda (a member of the indie-rock/trip-hop duo Cibo Matto), electric harpist Zeena Parkins (see Björk, John Zorn, and Elliott Sharp) and others. “Companion Piece” comfortably commences in a ballad-esque aspect which has a Bill Frisell characteristic, but by the conclusion Cline, Dunn and Amendola veer into a zone of coiled-and-broiled soloing and extreme effects. “Canales’ Cabeza” is an invigorating and blistering tribute to Bay Area chef and music devotee Paul Canales. “Hairy Mother” starts out as an anarchic work heated with Cline’s many digitalized effects and then swerves to a 1970s classic rock posture with heavy guitar riffs and grooves, Amendola’s intense rock-like drums and Dunn’s pummeling bass. This is sure to please rock listeners who revel in pyrotechnics, and will probably bother any traditional jazzers. The final trio cut (and the CD’s ending track) is the eco-friendly “Sascha’s Book of Frogs,” an attentively twisted tribute to Amendola’s son, and his beloved book on hopping critters.

Cline draws inspiration from myriad influences. Brazilian singer-songwriters such as Baden Powell are intimated on percussive-laden “Respira” and “Macroscopic.” Both include Cline’s nonverbal vocals (the first time Cline has used his voice on a Nels Cline Singers record) and rhythmic support from guests. The relatively relaxed “Respira” has a buoyant guitar melody underscored by Honda’s parallel electric piano and Cyro Baptista’s and Josh Jones’ twinned percussion, which provides an elegant foundation. “Macroscopic” has an atmospheric and nearly ambient feel, where Cline’s acoustic guitar is initially counterpointed by his wordless vocals, and then balanced against Amendola’s electronics and Honda’s eerie OP-1, a kind of portable synthesizer. Seventies-era jazz fusion, in particular early Weather Report, was a partial stimulation for the lengthy “Seven Zed Heaven,” where a swirl of guitar, loops, bass, drums and percussion establish an excellent funk-jazz groove, before the piece diverges into wild-eyed, jazz-skronk similar to what Zorn, et al brought to the downtown NYC music scene. Macroscope won’t cause non-Cline fans to become Cline aficionados: but it might aim a few people toward Cline’s direction. Macroscope is not the type of album for traditionalists who eschew non-conformity. Cline was a rock and roll kid who discovered John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and then ethno-music, and he has stated, “There was no turning back. From that point on, the idea of purism just was not possible.” It’s that kind of possibility, the probability of anything happening at any time, which permeates Cline’s latest music.

TrackList: Companion Piece; Canales’ Cabeza; Respira; Red Before Orange; The Wedding Band; Macroscopic (For Kusama-San); Climb Down; Seven Zed Heaven; Hairy Mother; Sascha’s Book of Frogs

—Doug Simpson

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