Nels Cline: Guitarist who straddles two worlds

Boston Globe, June 22, 2007

The intersection of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll brings to mind crossovers of the ’70s, from the Miles Davis of “Bitches Brew” or John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra to the refined session pop of Steely Dan, as well as the sprawling miasma known as fusion. But today, the atomization of music into myriad substyles makes possible whole new kinds of encounters, as well as offering passage between both worlds to those daring enough to try. For an example, consider the case of Nels Cline, known to rock connoisseurs since 2004 as the lead guitarist in Wilco, but also for close on three decades a figure in the often-esoteric free-jazz and improvisation scenes.

This summer brings opportunities to savor Cline’s guitar prowess in three settings. On Thursday, he appears with Wilco at the Bank of America Pavilion. On Aug. 8, he accompanies the jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman at Regattabar. And next week, he releases “Draw Breath,” the second album by his trio the Nels Cline Singers, with Devin Hoff on bass, Scott Amendola on drums, and a guest appearance by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche on percussion.

“Nobody thinks I’m slumming anymore,” Cline says on the phone from a tour stop in Cincinnati. But other than that, he says, becoming the lead guitarist of a big-time rock band hasn’t made his life all that different from what it was before. At 51, he’s Wilco’s eldest member, but he’s unafraid of the demands of the road. “I thrive in it,” he says. “I love to play. It’s normal for me, I’ve been in a lot of bands. The tour buses and the number of people are different, but everything else is the same.”

With Cline as chief ax-wielder, Wilco’s sound, born in 1990s alt-country, has evolved a bit from the multifaceted pop of its middle period and added something of a jagged edge, with masterful solos that dig inside and deconstruct the melodies without unsettling the songs’ structure or narrative arc. Cline says he’s often asked what he’s brought to the band. “I think the expectation was that I’d bring a more noisy, chaotic feel to Wilco, and there’s a certain truth to that,” he says. “I’ve upped the ante sonically, added a little to the energy level, and that’s been met with approval.”

In return, he says, Wilco has brought him a great band experience. “I started listening to rock in the 1960s, I love bands and their camaraderie. I love all the pageantry of a good rock show, that immersion in sound.”

And with that the soul of the born improviser reappears. Cline serves up music of a remarkably diverse range, a soundscape artist with a fascination for every topography. “Draw Breath,” the trio album, is a case in point. It opens with the gorgeously lugubrious “Caved-In Heart Blues,” which builds methodically to a contained paroxysm of noise before falling back on its dirge-like theme.

Next comes “Attempted,” which is recognizably jazzlike in structure, with a rapid-fire group attack followed by solo turns and a collective finale, and also in feel, if you’re open enough to admit distortion and other electric effects. “Confection” starts like a driving rock song. “An Evening at Pops”’ is a 16-minute, ultra-free ramble that defies simple description. And so on.

Cline avers that being all over the place is his modus operandi. “Beautiful ballads, free jazz, layered, unlayered … that’s what I always do,” he says. The album is “an excursion with moments of rest and moments of confrontation. I just do what I like to do. I do it for the hard-core listener, and for myself.”

The only thing missing from the Nels Cline Singers is, in fact, singing. Of the group’s name, Cline says: “That was just me having fun. I was casting about for another band name. I also thought that rather than just being ironic and clever, it gives the idea of singing with the instruments.”

Jeff Gauthier, a violinist and producer who heads the adventurous Cryptogramophone label on which “Draw Breath” appears, says the album is particularly wide-ranging, even by Cline’s standards. “It covers a lot of emotional territory,” Gauthier says.

If Cline isn’t well known – or at least wasn’t before becoming the Wilco guitarist – it isn’t just because of the obscurity of improvisation and free jazz on the musical landscape. It’s also because he works in Los Angeles, not known as a capital of what’s called, in the lingo, “creative music.”

And that’s a misperception, he says. Creative music is alive and well in the Southland. “There’s a burgeoning number of really interesting, disciplined young players willing to improvise. And also, maybe this is sad and pathetic, but because we’re all basically ignored by the rest, people tend to support each other, and musicians are not competitive with each other.”

Their work appears on local labels like Nine Winds and especially Cryptogramophone, which in addition to the Singers album is releasing next week a record by pianist David Witham, “Spinning the Circle,” on which Cline also appears.

Gauthier says he’s glad that playing with Wilco has earned Cline’s other endeavors some much-deserved visibility. “It’s great that the spotlight is focused on him,” Gauthier says. “And his main reaction has been to bring other people along with him.”

Still, Cline says the interaction and mutual curiosity between his two worlds remains a bit of a one-way street. “Most people who play with rock bands are very curious about my jazz and improvisational life,” he says. “But the jazz people usually aren’t curious about my rock life. So it doesn’t really come up. But the people who know me are really happy for me.”