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The Nels Cline Singers On Piano Jazz

Guitarist Nels Cline and his band, The Nels Cline Singers (which includes no singers), complete their Tour de NPR (see the band's Tiny Desk Concert earlier this month) with a Piano Jazz session. Cline is most widely known for his mind-bending guitar solos and lap steel guitar textures with Wilco, but he's been making improvisational music and jazz of a free, celestial nature since the late 1970s.

Los Angeles-born, Cline began playing guitar at age 12, when twin brother Alex Cline took up drums. Nels has been playing in a variety of settings with other high-caliber musicians ever since. In addition to the aforementioned Wilco, his sterling indie-rock resume includes work with Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, legendary Minutemen/Firehose bassist Mike Watt, and ex-Jane's Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins, to name a few. On the jazz side, credits include work with Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith and the late bassist Eric Von Essen. He also teamed up with drummer Greg Bandian to record a modern rendition of John Coltrane's 1967 album Interstellar Space, titled Interstellar Space Revisited: The Music of John Coltrane. The Nels Cline Singers, which also includes drummer Scott Amendola, bassist Devin Hoff and keyboardist Yuka Honda, met up with guest host Jon Weber for a set of Nels Cline's originals and a few tunes by Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk.

Cline kicks off the session in trio form, with drummer Amendola and bassist Hoff on an original tune dedicated to jazz guitarist Jim Hall.

"[Jim Hall's] playing is really pretty free," Cline says. "He's always forward-looking, never boring and absolutely inspiring. Actually, many years ago, I wrote this little ditty for him."

"Blues, Too" opens on a noirish and gritty line, shifts tempo and heads briefly into a heady, atmospheric trip before resolving around the opening theme.

"That piece is one of the few I've written that could kind of be called a jazz piece, in that I wanted to reference the Cool School of the '50s at its most avant-garde," Cline says.

The Cline Tone

Cline's tone is the subject of much discussion among guitar geeks, and he's detailed his palette of effects, which includes many analog pedals nearing antique status, extensively at his own website. Rather than masking sloppy playing through layers of high-gain distortion or heavy delay, Cline uses the complex signal chain to unleash the full potential of the electric guitar.

"I don't play a jazz guitar, although it's called a Jazzmaster," Cline says. "And it's taken a number of years to acquire a sense of tone, and on tour there's the challenge of using a different amplifier each night."

In "You Noticed," with the addition of keyboardist Yuka Honda, Cline uses vibrato, volume swells and harmonics to create an impressionistic, spacey piece with Theremin-like tones that float over the rhythm section.

"It's a bit inspired by 'Blue in Green,' " Cline says. "I think there's a bit of Bill Evans floating around in there somewhere."

Guest host Weber joins in for a take on "Turnaround." The band opens with the straight blues head of the tune before taking it outside for an extended stretch in true Ornette Coleman fashion. Weber and Cline exchange swift bars, punctuating each other with stabbing notes, as Hoff keeps time with a walking bass line and drummer Amendola paints a colorful backdrop. Weber follows with an elegant piano solo in "Ruby My Dear."

Space Is The Place

The full band of Singers returns in "B86 (Inkblot Nebula)," as Cline opens with an ethereal, swelling line over Yuka Honda's lush keyboard, which mutates into an organ that would sound right at home with Sun Ra's Arkestra. For The Nels Cline Singers, space is indeed the place.

The companion piece to "B86," titled "Thoughts on Caetano," follows with a skittering drum pattern looped beneath Cline's swirling guitar chorus, as live drums and watery keyboard textures glide in. Time seems to stop, with Cline adding a reverse tape loop to complete the event horizon in this tiny universe, packed into a little more than four minutes. It's a fitting finale to this interstellar Piano Jazz journey.

Originally recorded July 9, 2010. Originally broadcast Sept. 28, 2010.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Grant Jackson