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Nels Cline: Intrepid Guitarist

By Published: August 19, 2004
The Left Coast Scene

Over the past twenty-five years, through associations with Vinny Golia, Cryptogramophone Label owner and violinist Jeff Gauthier, his own brother Alex, and a host of others including Wayne Peet, Steuart Leibig and G.E. Stinson, Cline's name has become synonymous with the more avante-leaning west coast jazz movement, the so-called Left Coast scene. And while people are quick to look for defining characteristics of that scene, especially in comparison to the downtown New York scene, Cline is less inclined to think of it as a matter of style, rather more a matter of place.

"I think that there's no doubt," explains Cline, "and I've had to answer this question a lot mostly because I obviously play in New York as much as possible so people think I have some insight, that obviously everybody has looked to New York at some point or another. They've said, 'I really love this John Zorn guy, I want to know more about the downtown scene,' or whatever it is, and certainly John has brought a lot of people to that music. He's kind of a rock star in his genre. I wanted to move to New York in the early 70s, I was dying to move there, I thought it was the greatest place, just because I liked the feeling there. But I knew that I couldn't survive there, because I had no self-confidence. But obviously New York has the history, New York has the commerce, it has the depth, you know, they have a deep bench, there's a lot of players there, there's a lot of competition, and as a result of there being commerce there it gets covered in the press, people know a lot about these players, whereas they don't know about a lot of the players in other cities.

"So that's what differentiates it from any other place," continues Cline. "It's always going to have some kind of cachet and it's going to be easier to get a gig if you're from New York playing weird music than it is from anywhere else because people are basically going to think you're going to suck if you're not from New York. If you're from New York you must be good. That's the biggest difference. I don't want to say musically whether there's much of a difference or not, but certainly whether people want to admit it or not, there's a blueprint that's pretty New York-esque that a lot of people have looked to, even if it was only for one part of their life, it had an effect, an impact on how they think about constructing a piece, or playing their instrument, whatever.

"That said," Cline concludes, "John Carter and Bobby Bradford had a huge impact on me, they were coming more out of the Ornette thing, and Ornette's thing is not a New York thing, even though he moved there. He was in L.A. for years, but he's a Texas guy, totally Texas, so is Julius Hemphill, a total Texas guy, and Dewey Redman. But also I got really interested in the European jazz scene in the '70s, with all those ECM people. That had a huge impact, I think, on the world, you can hear the lasting resonance of players like Jan Garbarek; now other players, even session guys, play like Jan Garbarek."

Musical Resonance and Musical Audacity

Cline's first trio lasted, with some personnel changes, for nearly ten years, releasing albums on the German Enja label as well as the smaller independent, Little Brother. Reconciling Cline's jazzier predilections with his desire for a broader reach that also incorporated his rockier sensibility was a challenge, and something that the first trio wasn't always completely successful at combining in a way that his current trio, The Nels Cline Singers, can. But one thing that was surprisingly clear from the start was that Cline, clearly a facile guitarist who could shred and burn with the best of them, wasn't about making records that were meant to appeal to the more technical side of the instrument. "The criticism that people who like hearing me play exciting guitar have of some of my own records," says Cline, "is that there isn't enough exciting guitar on them. That's because I don't like to hear myself do a lot of fast finger wiggling on my own records. There's a friend of mine 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. I want to listen to what I want to listen to, that's what I record, and so I just try to do what I think will be really nice to listen to and it is all, for me, more emotion-based rather than based on any kind of conceptual novelties; certainly not based on any tradition per se , I just like to feel like something.

"I aspire to a balance of autodidact fascist self-obsessed rigidity," Cline continues, "and then writing for everyone to enjoy contributing their personality to the orchestra and having freedom, no doctrine. There are blowing pieces," continues Cline, "the non-doctrinaire pieces. But the other ones are very much calculated to have some kind of an emotional resonance that I would associate something with, and because I associate something with it, I naturally assume that it, at least, has the potential for universality because that's how art infected my life. So I go by not just music, but all the different ways that art and culture have transformed my way of thinking about the world and myself. I just use that as my yardstick; if it's good enough for me and I can live with it then it's going to have to be good enough. And I think that's not something a lot of virtuoso musicians do, because I think they measure themselves against the greats of all time, and as a result don't always express themselves, they're too daunted to, or they really don't feel they are allowed to be creative because that would be egotistical somehow."

Still, as much as Cline's records are about pure emotion and less about the logistics of performance, his broad talent and distinct personality always seep through. And while Cline's music is often without overt reference points, some people do find the need to draw comparisons. "I've gotten a lot of flak," explains Cline, "from some people who say, 'Why do you think you're so hot to make your own records? You're not as good as Wes Montgomery, or so-and-so.' But I don't think music should be a competitive or comparative thing; it certainly never was to me. To me the more the merrier, and to me the idea of the loft jazz scene, the so-called DIY aspect of that, which is totally identified with in the punk world, it's the same ethic, it means that everybody can do something, and you never know what's going to have an impact.

"Listen to a band like DNA or even Sonic Youth," continues Cline. "If these guys didn't make records or play gigs, I wouldn't be thinking about music the same way. It's a very simple equation; I'm not looking for the ultimate chord voicing everywhere I go. Someone like Lenny Breau totally inspired me in terms of his massive technique, but he also had an aesthetic about harmony that was unique to him, and not just his chops. Same goes for what my friends call primitive musicians, and some of them are compartmentalized, creating a ghetto for them called the unschooled musician, as opposed to the schooled musician. But I have to say that I categorically reject this, it's the antithesis of how I view the world and it's also the antithesis of how I think about creativity in general. To me everybody is allowed to do anything they want, I just don't have to like all of it. But if we didn't all do it nothing would change. It's some of the crazy people that usually force us all to go somewhere else because nobody else has the courage to be out there.

"I got to hear Derek Bailey in Barcelona this year," Cline concludes, "and I feel really good that I got to tell him that because of his courage, his taking the hard road, and making the courageous choice to be himself, he made it easier for all the cowards like myself, who would never have been able to do what he did. He's the father of all those years of investigation that we've all benefited from. I don't have that kind of audacity, that kind of tenacity; I'm just not that person, so these are the people that push the music forward."

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