Larry Ochs / Nels Cline / Gerald Cleaver - What Is To Be Done

Label: Clean Feed, 2019

Personnel - Larry Ochs: saxophone; Nels Cline: electric guitar; Gerald Cleaver: drums.

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If you want to figure out how music can be so ferocious and intimate at the same time, you should try What Is To Be Done, a compulsory trio record featuring saxophonist Larry Ochs, guitarist Nels Cline, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The album brings a special motivation since it marks the 500th release of the Lisbon-based avant-jazz imprint Clean Feed.

The three musicians have been gigging together for quite some time but never had recorded before as a group. Saxophonist and guitarist were temporary partners in the Rova’s Electric Ascension bands, while Cleaver records with Cline for the first time, taking the opportunity to tighten the musical bond with Ochs after their duo album Songs of the Wild Cave (RogueArt, 2018).

They let the music breathe in the introductory section of the mercurial “Outcries Rousing”, where we hear elongated, electrified guitar chords sustaining a bashful saxophone. Moments later, Ochs wallows in a rasping rumpus with just Cleaver’s magnetic backbeat underneath. Even when Cline joins again, causing a darned detonation of acid-rock and proto-funk, the musicians find their own space, stretching their imagination to reinforce the collective’s integrity. A rare dark atmospheric passage seems to motivate Cline to subvert the sonic milieu. He dishes out twangy, spasmodically electro strokes synced with methodical percussive thumps. This segment evolves into an avalanche of sound created by continual noise guitar, fraught and resilient saxophone trajectories delineated with dark tones, and the catchy, athletic pulses from Cleaver. He is a fantastic rhythm sculptor, who also excels in the following structural block marked by prog-rock invention and electronica slipperiness. Running over 20 minutes, there’s a lot going on here, and the trio even stops by power-metal territories before Ochs detours toward East, throwing in sumptuous, Arabic-flavored phrases.

A Pause, a Rose” is initially tinged with folk influences, affected by cascades of draggy electronic effects, and ultimately buoyed up by a lovely, fragmented trippy rhythm that produces glorious results with the guitar and soprano sax atop.

Like the opening track, “Shimmer Intend Spark Groove Defend” goes above 20 minutes, relying on the intense capacity of communication between the trio members, who work from many different angles. Exhibiting seamless transitions while pummeling with impressive force, this track includes relentless primitive rhythms, eerie drones, agonizing groans and spiraling phrases on the saxophone, and a variety of guitar textures comprising serene loopy vibes, loud spiky liberations, grungy tautness, and psych-rock stabs.

This is a tiny treasure of a disc, where you find no subterfuges and every section becomes a fresh discovery.

Grade  A

Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Outcries Rousing ► 03 - Shimmer Intend Spark Groove Defend


The Nels Cline 4 - Currents, Constellations

Label: Blue Note, 2018

Personnel – Nels Cline: guitar; Julian Lage: guitar; Scott Colley: bass; Tom Rainey: drums.

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Whether digging into glam pop songs, avant-jazz routines with punk attitude, or sophisticated garage-rock episodes, impetuous guitarist Nels Cline, a creative powerhouse in small group settings, always sounds unique and fetching. Blue Note’s Currents, Constellations marks the debut of The Nels Cline 4, a quick-witted group featuring Julian Lage on guitar, Scott Colley on bass, and Tom Rainey on drums. Both guitarist and drummer had recorded with Cline before, whereas Colley is the novelty here, feeling totally comfortable in the new job. 

Furtive” kicks off with one single guitar stroke followed by an artsy drumming demonstration. 30 seconds later, an unstoppable, frantic bass ostinato glues to the drums, upholding the highly contrapuntal work of the two guitarists, whose directions occasionally converge into parallel motions. Stylish rocking riffs and fervent avant-garde moves are on full display. 

That mood has nothing to do with the mutable jazz-rock jammer “Swing Ghost 59”, which swings with conviction from time to time, opening a space for Colley's improvisation before falling into a quiet guitar-driven passage. Surprisingly, the band plunges into a bluesy, retro-swing movement that seamlessly morphs into a type of Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy-Lady-rhythm for the finale.

A prolonged jarring drone opens “Imperfect 10”, a composition with a catchy theme impregnated with awesome and complementary guitar licks extracted from different octaves. Cline channels his energy through his habitual inventiveness of sound and surprising chops, while Lage, known for a more formal posture, fills the atmosphere with a bold rocking reverie.

Hauntingly beautiful, “As Close As That” was inspired by guitarist Ralph Towner and interweaves mystery and tenderness with a remarkable honesty. Like an alternative pop/rock ballad, it favors space over density, just like “River Mouth Pt.1 and 2”, where textural explorations overcome any searching or confrontational postures. The first part of this composition carries celestial non-angularities, making us wander among the stars, while the second, predominantly folk, evokes Towner once again, sounding ennobling and spontaneous.

Amenette” was first heard on Room (Mack Avenue, 2014), the magnificent duo album by Cline and Lage, but here was re-interpreted with richly contrasting instrumental approaches. The quartet alternates between ferociously swinging and discreetly laid-back, with the soloists often taking their actions to the edge of dissonance. When the experimentation takes over, Rainey shows how masterful he is in the art of tom-toming, and everything ends in an electric fizz before the theme rings again.

On Carla Bley’s rare and temperate “Temporarily”, the melodic juxtapositions from guitar and bass are anchored by rich chord voicings, and brushed drumming patterns.

There’s a deep sense of understanding among the musicians and that reflects positively in their nimble moves and sounds. The levels of abstraction in Currents, Constellations makes it more indisputably alluring than any recent project led by Cline, who has here one of his best albums since the masterpiece New Monastery.

       Grade  A

       Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Swing Ghost 59 ► 03 – Imperfect 10 ► 04 - As Close As That


Nels Cline - Lovers

Nels Cline: guitar; Michael Leonhart: trumpet; Steven Bernstein: trumpet; Alan Ferber: trombone: Charles Pillow: reeds; Ben Goldberg: clarinets; Julian Lage: guitar; Jeff Gauthier: violin; Kenny Wollesen: vibraphone; Zeena Parkins: harp; Erik Friedlander: cello; Davin Hoff: bass; Alex Cline: drums, etc.

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Innovative, ingenious, and thought-provoking are all suitable descriptive words to define the 61-year-old American guitarist Nels Cline whose career embraces a variety of styles and projects. 
With an instinctive inclination to explore, Cline has consolidated his position as one of the most exciting contemporary guitarists and bandleaders out there.

A few years ago, he was shaping the progressive folk-jazz of Quartet Music, probing modern creative directions alongside Tim Berne and Vinny Golia, offering robust layers to the alternative country-rock of the Chicago-based band Wilco, blowing our minds with his subliminal avant-garde group Nels Cline Singers, and roaming unrestrictedly with his fellow, and much different guitarist, Julian Lage, with whom he associated with in 2014 to record Room.
Lage is part of the all-star ensemble gathered by Cline in order to build Lovers, his debut on Blue Note Records. 

Under the conduction of trumpeter-arranger Michael Leonhart, the recording session counted on stars such as vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen, violinist Jeff Gauthier, horn players Seven Bernstein, Ben Goldberg, and Alan Ferber, harpist Zeena Parkins, bassist Devin Hoff, and Nels’s twin brother Alex Cline in the drummer’s chair.
The very personal selection of songs conveys an unexpected romanticism, so atypical of Cline's former projects.

Besides a few beautifully orchestrated standards such as “Glad to be Unhappy”, “Secret Love”, “Why Was I Born?”, and “Invitation”, which was immaculately arranged with sounds and rhythms associated with Sun Ra, the recording brings us five originals by the bandleader. “Hairpin & Hatbox” captivates due to a sweet melody placed on top of balmy harmonies, while the dreamy “The Bond”, interlacing acoustic and electric sounds, ends with a chord progression proper of a pop song.

Other rich interpretations of compositions from disparate artists were included: Jimmy Giuffre’s blues-rooted “Cry Want” starts with a solo guitar ostinato, gradually being thickened with background layers of instrumentation; Sonic Youth’s “Snare, Girl” was handled with a tribal rhythm, straight melody, and psychedelic vibes; Gabor Szabo’s 6/4-metered “Lady Gabor”, spiced by Zeena Parkin’s harp, flows assertively with groove. 

Completely divergent in mood “It Only Has to Happen Once”, a song by the eclectic duo Ambitious Lovers, is propelled by steady beats, gaining a chill-out mood and a propensity for tango in the same line of Thievery Corporation.

This is one of those typical cases where the past is brought into the present with completely different colors, blurring the line of time and genre. Nels Cline's conscientious dedication to this album is quite evident. Shifting musical tastes, polished arrangements, and a combination of textures and flows are put to work in Lovers, providing safe listenings.

         Grade  A

         Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
06 – Lady Gabor ► 13 – It Only Has to Happen Once ► 15 – Snare, Girl