You never know what to expect from guitar marvel Nels Cline. One night he might bring his trusty Fender Jaguar solid body to the gig along with an array of effects pedals strewn out across the stage and wreak sonic mayhem with subversive punk intent. But on this night at Le Poisson Rouge, as part of the Downtown Music Gallery’s 21st anniversary bash, the restlessly adventurous guitarist (and Wilco sideman) left his effects pedals at home and played a fat body, double-pointed cutaway Barney Kessel model Gibson ES-350 guitar straight to the amp in an intimate duet setting with fellow guitarist Julian Lage. The two had met only recently at Jim Hall’s Blue Note engagement last month, which Lage had appeared on as special guest. Elder statesman Hall introduced the two guitarists to each other and within a very short time they were able to strike up an uncanny chemistry.
Their appearance together at Le Poisson Rouge was surprisingly delicate, full of intricate counterpoint, daredevil intervallic leaps executed in tight unison and dazzling extrapolation of themes on some challenging material that Cline had written for the occasion but not yet named. (Indeed, he had to wear glasses on a few tunes to be able to sight-read through the charts propped up on music stands on stage). With Cline dabbling in false harmonics and other extended techniques and Lage sailing up and down the fretboard with effortless abandon, the two guitarists touched on material that at times alluded to the gentle interwoven patterns of Anthony Wilson’s recent Four Seasons guitar project (which Lage also played on) and at other times sounded like a master class in advanced guitar harmonies conducted by Lenny Breau and Ted Greene. It was a world of difference from the droning, meditative acoustic duets that Cline performed last summer at Le Poisson Rouge with fellow guitar renegade Marc Ribot, and also another universe of sound from the thrashing, tumultuous expressions of the Nels Cline Singers, the free jazz trio that the guitarist has fronted for the past 10 years.
Opening the evening was a provocative improvising trio consisting of electric guitarists Anders Nilsson and Raoul Bjorkenheim and drummer Gerald Cleaver, collectively known as Kalabalik. Celebrating the recent release of their self-titled CD on the DMG/ARC label, the keenly interactive trio performed pieces that were built on heavily effected, trance-like power chord droning and fueled by Cleaver’s thoughtful, melodic orchestrations on the kit. With Nilsson tending toward Mahavishnu-esque machine-gun picking and warmly distorted tones on his Les Paul goldtop and Bjorkenheim providing fractured comping and a shards-of-splintered-glass aesthetic as a soloist (except when he was going for legato lines by bowing his guitar with a violin bow), they tended toward latter-day Trane intensity with their heightened, layered expressions. The two guitarists essentially barked at each other with their guitars fed through long chains of effects pedals-looping patterns and alternating between fuzz onslaughts and wah-wah squalls to create a swirling latticework pattern of dense tones-and Cleaver provided the polyrhythmic glue that held it all together.
The guitar-heavy evening was a celebration for the Downtown Music Gallery, an important outpost for vinyl/CD collectors that specializes in avant-garde jazz, art pop, psychedelic rock, experimental music and rare European imports. Proprietors Bruce Lee Gallanter and Manny Maris have been hosting free music concerts every Sunday night in their store since 1991, going back to their days in the East Village and continuing to their current location in Chinatown. Several downtown notables including John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Elliott Sharp and Anthony Coleman, as well as Cline and Bjorkenheim, have performed in the cramped confines of the DMG over the years.