Toward the end of Jim Hall’s life, his manager would organize “crony lunches” for the master jazz guitarist to get him out of his apartment. Around 2012, he started inviting Nels Cline, Wilco’s lead guitarist. Cline, who had penned a review of ten Hall tracks for Jazz Time magazine a year earlier, cites Hall as a major influence, as well as the inspiration for his 2016 Blue Note album, Lovers.
Fellow guitarist Julian Lage — who performed with Hall and describes the late musician as one of the mightiest guitarists ever — attended one of those lunches, and he and Cline hit it off.
“He’s from California, I’m from California,” says Cline, who spent years in Los Angeles before moving to New York about a decade ago. “We just started chatting, and, of course, he’s the most affable and delightful person. And I said, ‘Hey, if you’ve got a minute to come down to the brownstone, I’ve got a bunch of guitars, if you want to check them out.’”
So Lage stopped by Cline’s West Village apartment, and the two nerded out.
“He knelt down in the kitchen and played this little Oahu acoustic that I had downstairs,” Cline recalls. “And it’s just one of those things where just hearing him play an arpeggio is just like, ‘Oh, my God. He’s just so good.’”
The feeling was mutual.
“It felt natural,” Lage says. “It wasn’t deadly serious at all. It was very free, very cathartic. I just remember going, ‘Wow, that’s amazing that this is such a master player, and in playing with him I felt like I had permission to access that kind of language — a language that I had started on young as far as free improvisation [goes], but never really did publicly, you know, as I did with a lot of players in California. We had kind of a community of improvisers.
“Nels definitely granted me permission, whether he realized it or not, to just service that kind of style and to engage in it really authentically,” Lage adds. “That was pretty immediate. That was how it felt right away. From there it kept growing.”
In those days, Cline, now 63, was burned out on music and depressed. Hoping to find new energy, he contemplated forming a drummerless group in New York, perhaps a trio or quartet with cello. The first time he and Lage — who was half his age, now 31 — started improvising, he says, they just had “this immediate thing that was nothing like he was doing at the time, and something that I was looking to do.
“Without me composing anything, it addressed what I was dreaming about, in a way,” Cline continues. “At times it was very open-ended, but directed — very modernistic in terms of a coherent use of polyphony and certain kinds of dissonance. We were doing this naturally. We both found the sounds exciting and enchanting — and also, the improvising chemistry, where I was listening carefully to him and him to me, was just happening.”
Cline and Lage soon began performing and recording together as a duo.
“There’s absolutely zero intimidation factor,” notes Lage. “Nels doesn’t really carry an air of intimidation, and I don’t think I do, either. So we’re just a couple of dudes playing guitar. It’s kind of that simple.”
While the concept might be simple, Cline and Lage’s 2014 album, Room, is anything but. Both masters of the fretboard, they spider through arpeggios on the angular cut “Racy” and the Robert Fripp-esque “Odd End,” create a more textural and expansive sound on “The Scent of Light,” and get reflective on the ballad “Freesia / The Bond.” Their compositions and improvisations draw from a vast palette when they play as a duo and with their quartet, the Nels Cline 4. That band, which also includes bassist Scott Colley and drummer Tom Rainey, will be at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox on Saturday, February 9.
“It was just kind of an experiment, initially,” Cline says of the quartet. “Julian and I just wanted to see what playing with a rhythm section would sound like and how it would affect our improvising ideas and chemistry. And it did have a challenging effect — just trying to get that space — because when Julian and I improvise together, we quite often just stop and listen to a polychord that we accidentally played that we think sounds amazing. We just let it hang. It’s just this massive amount of space as a result.”
Similarly, Lage says that he and Cline can play melodic content together with a lot of counterpoint and cross-talk. “But it’s not too overwhelming. If we were doing that with bass and drums — playing with the same velocity and volatility — it could be a little too agitating or overwhelming,” he says.
The Nels Cline 4 debuted with a pair of concerts as part of a week-long Cline residency at John Zorn’s New York City club, the Stone, in 2016. Another year and a half went by before the four musicians reunited to record demos of the songs they’d played during those shows.
Cline gave a demo of Nels Cline 4 material to Blue Note’s president, Don Was, who liked what he heard; soon thereafter, the quartet was working on 2018’s Currents, Constellations for the label. Cline wrote a few new pieces, and the four musicians went into the studio for a day to record the album. Some of the songs were from the original demo Cline had given Was; others were originals.
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There were two songs the band hadn’t even played live before, including the opener, “Furtive,” which was inspired by Duke Ellington’s “Tourist Point of View,” from The Far East Suite, and the ballad “For Each, a Flower,” which pays homage to musicians who’d recently passed, including John Abercrombie, Geri Allen, Bill Horvitz and John Schifflett, and guitar maker Bill Collings.
Currents, Constellations reflects the evolution of Cline and Lage’s relationship from duo to quartet.
“I think it’s really cool,” Lage says. “Not only does the duo live within the quartet, but we can break down to do it at any point. It’s also two different trios — me, bass and drums; and Nels, bass and drums. And then there’s the two of us, bass and drums at the same time. There are four or so different orchestrations that are obvious. I think it’s just a bigger palette, but the general emotional narrative is very similar. It’s very melodic. It’s very exploratory. It’s very volatile. It’s very clear. It’s kind of a nice combination of features.”
Nels Cline 4
9 p.m. Saturday, February 9, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, 1215 20th Street, $13-$33.