Nels Cline Double-Sizes The Singers

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The Nels Cline Singers has occupied the space between free-jazz and indie rock since guitarist Nels Cline formed the group in 2001.

(Photo: Sean Ono Lennon)

He’s perhaps best known as a member of the band Wilco. But those with a fuller picture of Nels Cline’s career know him as an avant-garde renegade who lives in the amorphous netherworld between rock and jazz. Indeed, it’s in that gap that the guitarist locates his artistic roots.

“In high school in the early ’70s, the records that changed my life were by Miles Davis, Tony Williams Lifetime, early Weather Report,” the 64-year-old guitarist recalled. “For me, those records formed this nondoctrinaire template, very free in terms of dynamics and compositional elements.”

In that spirit, Cline founded the Nels Cline Singers, his singerless trio, in 2001. While the band has gained cache in both free-jazz and indie-rock circles, to Cline its core always has been in that space between.

Never before, though, has the band reflected that lineage as it does on Share The Wealth, the six-piece Singers’ new album. Though the sound and feel are unquestionably Cline’s, it also has a direct and discernible connection to the groundbreaking early days of the fusion era.

Much of this connection comes from Cline’s double-sizing the band, which had long been a “power trio.” Cline, drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Trevor Dunn were the core musicians on the group’s 2014 album, Macroscope (Mack Avenue). Cline had been itching to do something new with the Singers when the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec asked him to create a larger variation five years ago.

That concert was a one-off. But the idea of an expanded Singers lineup stuck with Cline, and another version soon began to take shape in his head. The first recruit was percussionist Cyro Baptista (a guest on Macroscope), whose bossa-
influenced funk rhythms reminded him of Airto Moreira’s work with Davis and early Return to Forever. Cline also knew Brian Marsella was a keeper: “Fender electric piano puts me right in the [fusion] zone, and Brian knows how to bring that.”

The final addition, however, surprised even Cline. He’d been feeling burned out on saxophones—“I probably had piccolo on my list before saxophone,” he said—when he found himself jamming with Skerik last year at a Phish after-show in New York. “It was amazing,” Cline said of the experience. “Skerik’s palette is beyond mere saxophone. He’s a one-man metal riff machine, and he has a lot of effects that he uses expertly. But he also showed an ability to rein in the virtuosity, so it wasn’t just constant blather—there was all this melodic directness.”

Add in gobs of electronic processing for all involved and the Singers had a palette that fit right into the heady experiments of the early ’70s.

With Cline’s original concept, Share The Wealth would have gone even further in that direction. He arrived at The Bunker studio in Brooklyn with minimal written material. He intended for the band (which had never performed together before) to play lengthy improvised jams, which he would then slice up and extensively re-edit. It happened exactly as he had hoped, with some spontaneously created pieces to boot.

Yet when Cline went to edit what he’d recorded those two days in May 2019, he was floored at the raw material. “I was like, ‘Man, this is some really coherent improvising,’” he recalled. “None of it had to do with nonstop soloing. Some of the most fascinating and satisfying things were some of these transitions that sound like edits, but they aren’t. We just sort of shifted gears as an ensemble in a very startling way.”

In the end, he edited the tapes only for cleanup and time compression, then fired it off to Blue Note as a potential release. Cline didn’t expect label honcho Don Was to bite: “I thought he was gonna say, ‘Man, this is some cool stuff, but it’s just not for Blue Note.’ But that’s not what happened. What happened is he said, ‘Let’s do this.’ And the next thing I know, I have a really wild electronic fusion record with some long improvs.”

Shaping the future through forging links to the past is an impressive (and peculiarly jazzy) artistic accomplishment. Yet, the sextet iteration of the Singers hasn’t been able to seize that momentum: They’ve yet to play a concert. Cline blames the impracticality of booking a six-piece band with lots of gear, even before the pandemic did away with the whole notion of gigs.

Nevertheless, the guitarist hopes to keep it going. “I can’t go back to the smaller version,” he said. “Plus, damn, we gotta at least play one gig eventually. We’re really into something here. ... There’s no going back.” DB

This story originally was published in the January 2021 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.



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