(Jeff Gauthier – violin; Peggy Lee – cello; Myra Melford – piano, harmonium; Scott Walton – bass; Alex Cline – percussion)
Nels Cline – Coward – Cryptogramophone, CG 141, 72:31 ****1/2:
(Nels Cline – 6- and 12-string acoustic and electric guitars, sruti boxes, loops, banjo uke, ukulele, zither, fretless cigar box guitar, Turkish 12-string guitar, dobro, 6-string bass, megamouth, electric autoharp, quintronics drum buddy, koassilator, effects, acoustic and electric steel string guitars)
Drummer/percussionist Alex Cline and his twin brother, guitarist Nels Cline, are two of the most adventurous musicians that are part of the West Coast jazz and avant-garde music scene. The siblings’ extensive musical authority is at the forefront of the brothers’ newest solo albums, Continuation and Coward, simultaneously released in conjunction with Cryptogramophone’s tenth year anniversary. Although the projects are separate recordings, they have much in common: history, cohesion, and likeminded exploration.
Alex Cline’s Continuation is a quintet outing that embraces different cultural vestiges and philosophies to help create a collective group expression. Cline’s seven original compositions defy any specific genre or style. Instead, they offer an inventive fluidity, a humane grace, and the intimations of a wider perspective that expands the songs into a kind of universal limitlessness.
Cline dedicates his latest work to the memory of his mother, Thelma Nelson Cline, who passed away the day before Christmas in 2008, and to his young daughter, Naomi, who is the extension of the Cline family tree. This sense of genealogical succession, of a great circle that blooms unbroken, is punctuated by the opening and closing chapters, “Nourishing Our Roots” and “Open Hands (Receive, Release),” where Jeff Gauthier’s delicate violin, Peggy Lee’s resonant cello, Cline’s abiding percussion and Scott Walton’s intimate bass flow seamlessly as one.
There’s also a sensitivity to the earth and of spiritual spaces, as conceptualized via a Buddhist and lyrical approach. This is implicit in song titles such as “Clearing Our Streams,” “Fade to Green” and “Nourishing Our Roots.” This idea of a communal vision is also emotionally connected to other compositions as well, including “On the Bones of the Homegoing Thunder,” a tribute to Trappist monk/poet Thomas Merton. “Clearing Our Streams” starts with Walton’s solo bass, his arco work affording the tune’s melodic onset, his fingering reminiscent of Oregon’s Glen Moore. Then Cline enters about two minutes later, subtly but invitingly adding a swinging counterpoint, followed by the strings, and finally harmonium weaves in and forms a three-dimensional solo expanse, and moderately but firmly the musicians breath fire into the piece, moving from percolation to a faster pace with resolute textures.
“Fade to Green” is thoughtful but not necessarily tranquil. There’s a feeling of foreboding, tension, and mystery that permeates the unhurried, ambient five minute arrangement. Cline’s multiple percussion effects furnish an unsettling sweep echoed by the plucked and bowed strings and Melford’s pointillistic piano. “Fade to Green” is beautiful but discretely apprehensive, like finding decay beneath a flowerbed.
The eighteen-minute “On the Bones of the Homegoing Thunder” is an epic tone poem that surveys several genres at once. First, there’s a propulsive jazz section. Melford demonstrates her resourceful and expressive sensibility, evoking a merger of Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor in her avant-garde accustomed improvisation. Elsewhere, Cline’s percussion pulses underneath exotic, appeased moments, but like other unrestricted dramatic scores, there is a shift from austerity to intensity as the instruments build inexorably to a flash point. As potent as the work gets, however, it finishes with the tinkling of Noah bells and closes with another bubbling jazz segment. It seems certain the jazz-loving Merton would probably have approved of Cline’s open-minded homage.
Nels Cline’s strangely titled Coward, which is anything but uncourageous, supplies an outlet for Cline’s solo overdubs within a broad-minded auto-communication. Fans of Cline’s instrumental group, The Nels Cline Singers, should note that this effort is equally acoustic and electrifying, and less jazz-cacophonous than his trio settings. Cline has been contemplating a solo overdub undertaking for almost 25 years and the venture distinctively balances his various aptitudes as guitarist, improviser, composer, and technician.
Like Alex Cline, Nels Cline immortalizes his mother’s memory, most consciously with the droning electric ending statement, “Cymbidium,” which commemorates his late mother’s penchant for growing orchids. Opening movement, “Epiphyllum,” is also a drone excursion that layers loops, electronics, and electric six-string. Both offerings cradle low-lying dissonance which crackles and snaps with distortion.
As with his brother’s songs, Nels Cline’s material often contains an emotional charge, most conspicuous during introspective, acoustic numbers such as dobro/guitar duet “The Nomad’s Home,” “The Androgyne,” and “Prayer Wheel,” an older conception that may be Cline’s most melodically accessible appearance, suggestive of Ralph Towner’s ECM releases. The compact disc’s pièce de résistance is the nearly nineteen-minute memorial, “Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven,” which honors the Los Angeles microtonal guitarist who was brutally and senselessly murdered close to his home two years ago. During the extended narrative, Cline pairs his six- and twelve-string acoustic guitars with banjo uke, tenor ukulele, zither, fretless cigar box cigar and a Turkish twelve-string guitar. While it may seem so many instruments would smother the tune’s minimalist nature, the strings are organized at distant posts within the eccentrically inclined structure, allowing Cline’s penetrating single-note runs to conjure sadness, anger, inner strength, and celebration. While the realization is purely Cline’s, at times he elicits his lost friend Poole as well as antecedents such as John Fahey and Sandy Bull.
“Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven” is just one of the complexities on Coward. Without question, the approximately eighteen-minute, six-part “Onan (Suite)” is Cline’s most prominent elaboration, a diverse sonic showstopper that Cline humorously declares is the most self-indulgent endeavor he’s ever done. The episodic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek audio collage includes unleashed, pummeling passages, a buzzing psychedelic/noise rock protraction, disconcerting tatters of disembodied voices, luminous guitar strumming, and a waggish, shredding finale that would put Trey Gunn down for the count.
Both recordings capture the Clines’ with respective intent. Rich Breen handled the recording, mixing and mastering for Alex Cline’s Continuation, providing a purity and sharpness that skillfully catches the nuances of Walton’s bass lines and Cline’s quietest percussive shadings that go missing in a typical live environment. Breen also succeeds in spreading the full breadth of the ensemble’s concentrated instrumentation throughout the stereo spectrum, yielding a noteworthy auditory experience. Mark Wheaton did board duty for Nels Cline’s Coward. Because of the album’s sometimes noisy personality, the background and foreground is occasionally sonically damaging to unexpecting ears, but Wheaton persistently ties together Cline’s reflective impulses with his discordant plugged-in portions.
1. Nourishing Our Roots
2. Clearing Our Streams
3. Fade To Green
6. On the Bones of the Homegoing Thunder
7. Open Hands (Receive, Release)
2. Prayer Wheel
3. Thurston County
4. The Androgyne
5. Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven
6. The Divine Homegirl
7. X Change
8. The Nomad’s Home
9. – 14. Onan (Suite)
II. Lord & Lady
III. Dreams in the Mirror
IV. Interruption (Onan’s Psychedelic Breakdown)
VI. The Liberator
— Doug Simpson