2007 is shaping up to be the year for outstanding releases by guitarists in and around the jazz sphere. Steve Khan, John Abercrombie and David Torn have already released some of their best work in years. Add to that Nels Cline, whose New Monastery (Cryptogramophone, 2006) was on many critics' "best of" lists. Draw Breath pares down New Monastery's sextet to its core trio, The Nels Cline Singers, who've been a stable unit for over half a decade. Cline, bassist Devin Hoff, and drummer Scott Amendola rarely come together, but when they do they invariably sound as if they've never been apart.
Few guitarists possess Cline's chameleon-like ability to play it straight-ahead and warm, folksy and acoustic, or aggressively Skronk. Guitarists working in diverse settings often seem to lose their identity the broader their reach becomes. But Clinewhether working in Mike Watts' post-punk group, playing free improv with Vinny Golia, creating an urban acoustic alternative to Oregon in Quartet Music or in his current stint with indie group Wilcoalways remains uniquely identifiable.
With The Singers, just about anything can happenand often does. Bill Frisell's skewed Americana has never sounded quite as brooding as "Caved-In Heart Blues." Amendola and Hoff create a dark-hued pulse that, beneath Cline's minor-keyed, chordal-based melody, evokes images of bleak vistas, with Cline gradually creating an ever-expanding soundscape of layered acoustic and electric guitars.
Improvisation is an integral part of The Singers, but it's rarely about delineated soloing. In a 2004 interview Cline remarked: "There's a friend in the record industry who loves my playing, but tells me that I don't solo enough on my own records and it's actually very scrupulously constructed so that I don't." Cline's compositional form may range from the suite-like, arrhythmic and largely electronically textured epic of "An Evening at Pops'" to the Ornette Coleman-informed free play of "Attempted" (ultimately turning into a turbulent free-for-all that never abandons underlying form), but it's about collective rather than, with rare exception, individual accomplishment.
"Confection" rocks out with attitude, but speaks with a more sophisticated language, leading to an out-of-context arco solo from Hoff that fits perfectly as a segue into some seriously extremes from Cline and Amendola.
But Draw Breath isn't all about jagged edges. The quiet but in-the-moment "Recognize I" and "Recognize II" could easily fit on a mid-1970s ECM album. "The Angel of Angels" is folksier still, with Amendola's light percussion creating a gentle groove. "Squirrel of God," with guest Wilco-mate Glen Kotche on assorted tuned and untuned percussion, starts in the abstract and ends on a surprisingly melodic note.
Nels Cline may not be your stereotypical guitar hero, but he's a hero nevertheless; intrepidly assimilating a lifetime of encyclopedic musical experience into a sound and discography that, with the flexible collaboration of Doff and Amendola, is consistent in its excellence and unfailing progression. Draw Breath is, quite simply, The Nels Cline Singers' best yet.
Personnel: Nels Cline: electric and acoustic guitars, effects, megamouth; Devin Hoff: contrabass; Scott Amendola: drums, percussion, live electronics/effects; Glenn Kotche: percussion, crotales, glockenspiel (9).