It’s easy to focus on Nels Cline’s jack-of-all-trades work ethic, but what really makes the guitarist so significant is the consistency he brings to all these projects: a singular voice that occasionally goes heavy on the effects pedals, but uses them to create an astounding sonic vocabulary whether he’s playing straight rock music, jazz or, more typically, something in between.
On 2007’s Draw Breath, the Singers (Cline, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola) bridged the unforeseen gap between wild jazz improvisation and California punk-rock shredding. Today, when the Singers charge up, a musical touchstone could be progressive rockers King Crimson, circa 1975’s Red, where fuzzed out clatter could maintain melodic sense before it suddenly shifted to quiet ambience. The double-CD Initiate features one studio disc and one live disc, each revealing the trio’s alternating abilities to mow down listeners with brute force or gently sooth. The electric funk of “Floored,” at the front of the studio disc, has a vamp like ’70s Miles Davis, but Cline’s solo would send the trumpeter running for cover. Before this set finishes he evokes Pete Cosey or John McLaughlin, and on this cut Cline dispenses his sonic tempest over a vamp that stops abruptly enough to prove this isn’t merely a jam. Later on, a gentle bass vehicle (“You Noticed”) and semi-romantic melody (“Zingiber”) lead to “Mercy (Procession),” which sounds like its subtitle, with tension building as Amendola rattles all over his kit. The disc makes unpredictable shifts in volume, adding to the excitement of the program.
On the live disc, duality is on display too. After “Raze” sears the skin with vicious power chords and some equally toxic free improv, Cline shifts gears and turns in a beautiful version of Carla Bley’s “And Now the Queen,” a loping ballad that hasn’t been recorded since Paul Bley cut it for 1993’s Homage to Carla. He follows that with “Blues, Too,” an homage to Jim Hall, which evokes its subject with a clean tone and lean lines before Hoff and Amendola go on a cat-and-mouse chase and Cline breaks free for some chordal strumming. The disc’s cornerstone comes with the version of Joe Zawinul’s “Boogie Woogie Waltz.” For 14 minutes, Cline charts the past, present and future of jazz guitar, returning to the electric Miles bag, imitating a broken tape machine and conjuring Jimi Hendrix. If this all sounds like a bit too much, then listen in small doses at first, to make sure that none of the significant parts are missed. There are plenty of them.