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This is the weirdest studio record for us, for sure, in every way," guitarist Nels Cline says of the Nels Cline Singers' latest effort, Initiate. "I came into the session with almost no music finished. I had all these sketchy ideas, and I had this desire to make this different kind of record, and we basically had three days."
On previous Singers albums, Cline says, the trio, which also includes bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola, recorded really quickly. "We'd give ourselves two or three days to record, and we'd always finish early," Cline says. "In fact, I think on Draw Breath, we gave ourselves three days, and we actually made a whole other record that's never come out because we had so much time. It was an improvised record, but it was a whole other series of things."
On Initiate, released on Cryptogramophone in April, Cline and company maxed out those three days in the studio, with Hoff, Amendola and producer David Breskin helping Cline finish everything. "We clarified and focused and wrote some new things," says Cline, "and basically came up with a record that was what you hear and is very close to what we had arrived at."
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The result is part one of Initiate's two-disc set, which also includes a live recording of the Singers performing at San Francisco's Cafe Du Nord last September. The album shows just how multi-faceted the guitarist, who's gained a wider recognition since joining Wilco in 2004, is, while at the same time showing how completely visceral he can be in a live setting.
"This is either the most friendly Singers recording to date or the most antisocial, depending on who you are and what you expect," declares Cline on his website. When asked to elaborate on the statement, Cline says, "I just figured there were going to be people, sort of like hardcore dudes, who might find the studio record a little bit mellow and be all bummed out because there's some breezy stuff on there. I'm using my voice and trying to get a little warmer, possibly. I'm a romantic, anyway, so I think all my records have a kind of romanticism, but maybe it's a different feeling."
"At the same time," he continues, "people who maybe don't cling to the idea of things having to be hardcore — they will probably find this refreshingly direct and can maybe play the whole record in mixed company. Or maybe not the whole record, after all, because we still have 'Mercy (Procession)' to deal with, which has plenty of anguish in it. Well, maybe not anguish, but just some kind of strong wistful feeling."
The slow dirge "Mercy (Procession)," with its epic, gradual build, was one of the many cuts on Initiate that Cline says was inspired by the music of keyboardist and composer Joe Zawinul and what it meant to him when Zawinul died. The live disc includes a cover of Zawinul's Weather Report tune "Boogie Woogie Waltz."
With Initiate, Cline says he also set out to make music that was artful and that reflects his influences and interests in "music other than Western so-called music of Europe and America, that had maybe some influence from Africa and South America."
"I was also thinking about how so much music from, let's say Brazil, is so artful, yet it still is like music that's in the body," Cline explains. "You can get into it with your body. I wanted to see if we could maybe strike a balance between the intellect and the body, but not exclude the body from the scenario.
"I also wanted to bring in some early-'70s space jazz," he adds. "It's maybe a little bit of the minimalization of the Caucasian angst of previous efforts. And also, there are no overt swing grooves or free-jazz moments on the studio record. I just wanted it to be something a little different. And by free jazz, I mean just a piece with a little line, like 'Attempted' on Draw Breath, and then we could just go off and could go anywhere."
Cline doesn't see Initiate's studio disc as a new direction for the band, per se; it's just a different record. And stylistically, it might be Cline's most diverse work to date, one that finds the guitarist exploring other territories the Singers haven't necessarily traversed before, like the groove-laden "Floored," which recalls '70s electric Miles Davis, or the Santana-meets-Afrobeat of "King Queen," which also features guest organist David Witham.
The live disc, on the other hand, draws from earlier Singers material and is essentially a document of what the trio does in a live setting. To that end, Cline admits to making a few flubs during the live set. "But what are you going to do?" he muses. "I'm not a very precise player, so I just left them all in."
He may not be very precise, as he claims, but Cline is still one of the most daring guitarists out there today, both in jazz and rock. In February 2007, Rolling Stone included him in its "Top 20 New Guitar Gods" issue. To a Wilco fan, the 54-year-old Cline might be a new guitar god, but anyone who's followed his thirty-year career knows otherwise.