Nels Cline has quite the musical resumé, and yet has always been hard to pin down. Whether doing some form of fusion, manning the lead-guitar chair in Wilco, or serving up dissonance and sound in various solo projects, he never can be pigeonholed.
Now, there’s this latest – a very ambitious project that, according to his liner notes, was 25 years in the making. It was well worth the wait.
The two discs that make up this record are full of music that can be described in a lot of ways – jazz, chamber jazz, orchestral jazz, and mood music are just some starting points. But taken as a whole, it’s really just a feast that allows Cline to showcase his virtuosity and inventiveness.
Take “Glad To Be Unhappy,” a chestnut written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart that features a glorious string arrangement and Cline showing he has more than a passing familiarity with traditional jazz-guitar playing. He uses octaves, darting notes, and runs that are never clichéd.
The arrangements are done by Michael Leonhart, revealing new treasures with every listen. For instance, the dramatic take on “It Only Has To Happen Once” features a gorgeous string intro before Cline takes over. The song ends up sounding like a long-lost Tom Waits track with stunning lead guitar.
As you’d expect, there’s plenty of fine single-line playing by Cline, but he also proves adept at some jazz-based chord work. His intro to “The Bed We Made” is perfect and leads into a light swing feel and some monster soloing.
Blues roots are featured on “Cry Want” where his single-line blues opens things before the rhythm section kicks in. The song also lets him vent at the end, and the listener is treated to sweeps, flourishes, harmonics, whammy bar trickery, volume swells, and much more. The song then goes out with more blues notes that form a bookend with the intro.
Cline’s first effort for Blue Note Records is a unique, wonderful record, especially for a guy from a major rock band.
In his liner notes, Cline says he felt that the record was an homage to Jim Hall. He wanted to play it for him, but the legendary guitarist passed away the day they finished recording. Don’t worry, Nels, Jim would have loved it.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s February ’17 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.