Thirty years ago, Nels Cline recorded his first album as a bandleader for the Enja label. Angelica featured an all-star combo that included the guitarist’s twin brother Alex on drums, trumpeter Stacy Rowles, bassist Eric Von Essen and a young Tim Berne on alto saxophone.
“What I remember about it was being nervous about putting it out there,” Cline said, laughing, while taking a break from his European tour. “I had intended for the album to be the first of three records. And Angelica was going to be the most conservative dynamically, which would lead to another record, and then my trio record Silencer, which came out in ’91. You can hear the heavy influence of Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life in my first trio. In fact, when referring to Silencer, my brother Alex used to call it Dark Size Life. But for that first solo album of mine, what was interesting is Tim Berne, who was coming up on the New York jazz scene back then, came out to Burbank, California, where we were recording Angelica, and he’d never been on a record that sounded so conservative. Tim’s tone was so astonishing, even back then, and I thought it was something the world needed to hear. And if you go back and listen to that record, you can tell I had a good idea there.”
Just a few months before the release of Cline’s first album, his quintessential guitar foil, Julian Lage, was born. The two musicians first got together on record in 2014 for Room (Mack Avenue), a duo album in the tradition of Chet Atkins and Les Paul, or—perhaps more appropriately—John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner on the 1976 ECM title Sargasso Sea. Now four years later, this cross-generational tandem takes their act to Blue Note, where Cline released his acclaimed double-album Lovers in 2017.
Billed as The Nels Cline 4, Currents, Constellations features a rhythm section comprised of Lage’s longtime bassist Scott Colley and Tom Rainey—who has been a sideman for Berne during the past 20 years—on drums. From the album’s first moment on “Furtive,” listeners can hear the influences that informed Room expanded for the quartet format. But it’s guitarist Jim Hall who can be credited for getting Cline and Lage together—in a roundabout manner, at least.
“I met Julian through a friend named Brian Camelio, who is a guitarist and also heads up ArtistShare records,” Cline explained. “He also managed Jim Hall, and he used to have these crony lunches at the end of my street when I was living in the West Village, and Jim was a block away. So, Brian would invite him to these lunches in order to get him out of the apartment and hang out with friends, and he’d have people like Adam Rogers and Chris Potter and David Binney and all these different guys. He had invited Julian to one of these lunches with Jim Hall when I was there, and that’s how we met. Working with Julian, especially as a duo, is one of the most important things I’ve ever done, really. We began playing as a duo immediately after we met.”
While touring the ensemble might prove difficult, given each players’ busy schedule, immersion in Currents, Constellations might be a suitable stopgap for the time being, and should reveal the influence of John Scofield.
“There’s a song on here called ‘Imperfect 10,’ which is a total riff on Sco,” Cline said. “I just love John Scofield. What else could I say? We’ve become friends, but he’s still a hero of mine. He’s one of the most unique soloists; there’s nobody else who sounds like him. He’s so advanced, but at the same time, he’s so soulful and bluesy, and continues to do lots of different things. He’s still curious, and he’s still pushing himself. Whether it’s his trio with Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum or his stuff with MMW or Miles Davis, John Scofield is—for me—one of the most important guitarists ever.” DB