Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Cline, Nels

Nels Cline has combined rock influences with the harmonic language of John Coltrane and the motivic approach of Ornette Coleman in a prolific series of recordings which cemented his reputation as a leading guitarist of the jazz avant-garde.

Nels Cline was born on January 4, 1956 in Los Angeles, California. Cline first became interested in the guitar in 1966 at the age of ten, when he first heard the rock and roll band The Byrds, and the surf music that was popular in Southern California at the time.

Cline began to play the guitar in 1967, when his father purchased for him a Melody electric guitar for twenty dollars. Cline soon began listening to guitarists Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck of the Yardbirds and Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band.

In 1971, a friend of Cline’s lent him a copy of saxophonist John Coltrane's album His Greatest Years, Vol. 1, and was immediately taken aback by Coltrane’s sound. Cline also discovered the work of saxophonist Eric Dolphy and his interest in jazz deepened.

While Cline was drawn to Coltrane’s emotional and harmonically rich sound, he was frustrated by the lack of guitarists who could match Coltrane’s content. Soon Cline began listening to guitarists John McLaughlin, Jans Akkerman and Terje Rypdal, whom Cline admired for his inclination towards composing music that wasn’t strictly tonal.

Upon graduating from University High School in 1974, Cline enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he decided to study philosophy due to his interest in Western and metaphysical philosophy. Coltrane’s attention to philosophical material in his later recordings greatly appealed to Cline.

Cline eventually left college after a year to pursue music full time, but eventually returned to Santa Monica College, where he studied arranging, harmony and orchestration with professor Rule Beasley.

In 1977, Cline began performing in a duo with bassist Eric Von Essen, which soon expanded into a quartet with the addition of is twin brother Alex on drums and violinist Jeff Gauthier. The group named itself “Quartet Music” and soon began to appear at several prominent west coast establishments such as the Century City Playhouse, Beyond Baroque, The Storie-Crawford Dance Studio, and the Lighthouse.

Cline made his recording debut in 1979 on the album Openhearted by multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia. The next year, Cline and Von Essen released an album of duets entitled Elegies. The same year, Quartet Music released their first album Quartet Music for the Nine Winds label. Cline then appeared on saxophonist Tim Berne’s second release 7X in 1981. In 1984, Cline became a member of saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill’s band “JAH” and joined him on a tour of Europe.

Throughout the 1980s, Cline performed in a variety of situations that challenged him artistically including performing with rock band “Bloc” and performing with bassist Charlie Haden. In 1988, Cline recorded Angelica, his first record as a leader for the Enja label. The album featured Alex Cline, Eric Von Essen, Tim Berne and trumpeter Stacy Rowles. The same year, Cline performed in a trio with bassist Mark Dresser and violinist Mark Feldman.

In 1990, Cline formed “The Nels Cline Trio” which featured drummer Michael Preussner and bassist Mark London Sims. The trio released numerous demos and their first album Silencer in 1992 before replacing Sims with bassist Bob Mair.

The group released their second album Ground, which featured the song “A Sudden Interest.” On “A Sudden Interest” Cline displays his lightning fast chops while Mair walks the entire time. Cline’s performance evokes certain motivic cues that one might find in a solo by Ornette Coleman, but ultimately secures the tonal center. The group released four full-length records before disbanding in 1997.

In May 1993, Cline became the curator and host of an improvised music series entitled “New Music Mondays” at the Alligator Lounge in Santa Monica, California that featured the best of the west coast improvisatory scene. During this time, Cline has also provided his talents in scoring films. Cline’s first score was for director James Merendino’s 1994 film Hard Drive followed by director Philippe Dib’s 1997 film Welcome Says The Angel.

Throughout the 1990s, Cline began performing with guitarist Thurston Moore of rock band Sonic Youth, drummer Stephen Perkins and bassist Mike Watt. In 1997, Cline performed on the album Butch by the “Geraldine Fibbers.”

In 1999, Cline and percussionist Gregg Bendian recorded a reinterpretation of saxophonist John Coltrane’s record Interstellar Space for the Altavistic label. Instead of merely replicating the original album in its entirety, Cline and Bendian use the framework of the songs as a starting off point to showcase their own designs and concepts.

On “Venus,” Cline creates a series atmospheric sounds from his guitar that he manipulates with guitar pedals while Bendian plays sparsely to add to the atmosphere. Cline employs a series of volume swells on his guitar to provocatively express whatever he might be playing at the time. Cline’s performance is deep in catharsis and expertly evokes the spirit of Coltrane’s work.

The same year, Cline was the recipient of the “Outstanding Jazz Artist” award from the California Music Awards. Cline was also awarded an LA Weekly Music Award for “Best New Genre/Uncategorizable Artist.” In the subsequent year, Cline released the album Inkling on the Cryptogramophon label, which saw the beginning of a collaboration with avant-garde musician Zeena Parkins.

In 2001, Cline formed the sextet “Destroy All Nels Cline,” and released a self-titled album for Altravistic. In 2002, Cline founded the group “The Nels Cline Singers” with bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola. The same year, the group released the album Instrumentals.

On “Cause For Concern,“ Cline freely plays brisk lines creating an exciting dynamic between the bass and drums. Cline and Hoff add a lot of power to the melody by playing in unison while Amendola seizes the opportunity with unabashed strength keeping the momentum to a maximum.

Cline received a boost in popularity when he was asked to join critically acclaimed rock group Wilco in 2004. Cline has since appeared on their 2005 album Kicking Television: Live In Chicago and their 2007 record Sky Blue Sky.

In 2004, the Nels Cline Singers released the album The Giant Pin followed by Draw Breath in 2007. In February 2007, Cline was bestowed the honor of being one of Rolling Stone’s “Top 20 New Guitar Gods” where he received the title “The Avant Romantic.” The same year, Cline released the album Duo Milano with guitarist Elliott Sharp.

Select Discography

As Nels Cline

Angelica (1988)

The Inkling (2000)

With The Nels Cline Trio

Silencer (1992)

Ground (1995)

Chest (1996)

Sad (1998)

With The Nels Cline Singers

Instrumentals (2002)

The Giant Pin (2004)

Draw Breath (2007)

With Gregg Bendian

Interstellar Space Revisited: The Music of John Coltrane (1999)

With Tim Berne

7X (1980)

With Destroy All Nels Cline

Destroy All Nels Cline (2001)

With Vinny Golia

Openhearted (1979)

Blood And Concrete: A Love Story

Against The Grain (1996)

Razor (1996)

A Nation of Laws (1997)

One, Three, Two (2003)

With Quartet Music

Quartet (1980)

Ocean Park (1984)

Window On The Lake (1986)

Summer Night (1989)

Contributtor: Eric Wendell