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Nels Cline: Entering the New Monastery

By Published: October 24, 2006
Nels ClineHaving recently shared a 50th birthday recital/jam with his twin brother, Alex, at Cryptogramophone label owner/producer Jeff Gauthier's Cryptonight, LA's Nels Cline shows no sign of slowing down. A musician of limitless range, he creates, among other sounds, noise using kitchen utensils on a heavily processed guitar, enhances Willie Nelson tunes with soulful ornamentation, rocks Wilco, and offers versions of the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and now Andrew Hill. Featuring Nels Cline Singers colleagues Scott Amendola on drums and Devin Hoff on bass along with clarinetist Ben Goldberg, cornetist Bobby Bradford, and accordionist Andrea Parkins, New Monastery::A View into the Music of Andrew Hill has been released on Cryptogramophone. The critically acclaimed The Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone, 2004), with the Nels Cline Singers, wound up on several year-end best of lists. During a busy week, about to leave for a month with Wilco, Cline discussed New Monastery.

All About Jazz: When you decided to pay homage to an under-known living musician, did you work from a long list?

Nels Cline: It took me about three seconds of pondering whose music we should do to come up with Andrew Hill, not knowing that Ben [Goldberg] had played with Andrew Hill before. Then, as I began to mull over which pieces we should attempt, that's when I realized we needed a brass player. Though I wasn't sure if Bobby Bradford wanted to do something like this, I called him and he was really into it. I'd never been able to record with Bobby in all the years I'd played with him, and as we were driving up to the Bay Area together I was reminiscing about the first time I met him, which he didn't remember. But I met him when I was eighteen and, as such, reflecting upon that I guess he was the first real jazz guy I ever played with. I auditioned with him, but didn't get the job. I was way out of my depth, but he was very kind. Actually, he and John Carter were always very supportive and interested in me and my brother. So, that was a real honor to be able to do that. We had a real blast, everybody really enjoyed each other making the project happen.

This is the same thing, in a way, that happened when I recorded Interstellar Space (Atavistic, 1999) with Gregg Bendian. There was all kinds of potential for scholarship that I somehow didn't know about. I remember [percussionist] Adam Rudolph saying, "Have you seen [pianist] Alice Coltrane's book? She's got some of those lines in the back of the book, did you check that out? I had no idea. Similarly with this Andrew Hill thing, I didn't know he had a new Blue Note record coming out this year. I didn't know that [woodwind multi-instrumentalist] Anthony Braxton had done a record of his music, which I still haven't found. Somebody told me yesterday they'd heard that [saxophonist] Peter Apfelbaum, or someone was doing arrangements of Andrew Hill music. Unknowingly, I'm part of a growing trend of Andrew Hill-related energy, which can only be a good thing, in my opinion.

In coming up with this idea, I really wanted it to be the music of somebody who is still alive, because we always trot out all the drama when a great one dies. I know I've had my share of dedications to dead people in my day. There's certainly nothing wrong with it, but I do think it's a little bit of a human foible, if looked at in a certain light, to constantly honor the dead. It's amazing how many people I've described this project to don't know who Andrew Hill is, so that leads me to believe I may have done the right thing. But it wasn't because I can shed light on Andrew Hill, or I can direct some sort of audience toward Andrew Hill. It really had more specifically to do with the fact that the architecture, the content of his composing and his style has something within it that I thought we as interpreters could immediately latch onto.

And I think I was right. Certainly we took a more so-called free jazz approach to some of the earlier tunes. I think that rather than trying to recreate some kind of a Blue Note session, and we didn't just do Blue Note material, although it's primarily Blue Note material. We're using some electronics, and there's no piano, but still I think that everyone really related to the essence in some way, the brilliance of these pieces. The originality, and hopefully we have some new versions that people can enjoy. I don't think there's any pretension towards revelation here, these are just versions of the songs done in a way that befits our identities collectively and individually as an ensemble.

AAJ: Did you learn the pieces from scores or by ear?

NC: Here's what I did because I'm kind of a dumb ass. I'd met Andrew Hill many years ago, at the Skopje Macedonia Jazz Festival. I was there playing with Gregg Bendian's Interzone, and he was there with his trio. He was such a delightful person to meet, and I'm sure he doesn't remember it. A couple people I know have played with him. Marty Ehrlich still does on and off. So, I thought I'd be able to find out how many of these pieces he still had music for. Ben Goldberg told me he thought some this music had been destroyed in a garage fire many years ago. My attempts to engage Andrew on the phone about it were not successful. We just never hooked up. As it got closer and closer to the point where I had to do these for real, I just had to basically sit and do take downs from the recordings and arrange them. So, I could have wrong notes in there, because the area of harmony and chord symbols is highly subjective and I was really interested in what some his harmonic concepts would be, what he was thinking, might give me some insight. As it is, what you'll be hearing is essentially what I arrived at, plus I relied on the members of the group to streamline their parts or to make suggestions.

Because I'm no wizard, I'm definitely open to suggestions. Some of the way we approached the pieces, which was my idea, was to do suites of the themes, so that we have an episodic journey of improvisation, blending one piece into another. Not only did I feel that was a way that we could naturally enjoy interacting as musicians, it also is the way a lot of Andrew's music is now, and has been for awhile. I think the piece "Spectrum, which we didn't do, which is on Point of Departure (Blue Note, 1964), is an excellent example of the earliest indication of where his music was going. More episodic, more free, it doesn't just have head solo head.

So I wanted to reflect what I think his music has been about for twenty years or something, especially for larger ensembles. At the same time, we could fit more tunes in that way. I had this huge list of pieces I knew would never fit on a record. Also to say that the pieces I did chose are ultimately not a collection of my favorite Andrew Hill pieces, they're pieces that I thought we could play and not ruin. For example, Bobby Bradford, he's not a [trumpeter] Dave Douglas style player. Bobby, you want to solo, to put his voice on the music and not tangle him up in a whole bunch of gnarly trumpet parts.

I just wanted everyone to feel relaxed in the music and not feel they had to do some sort of gymnastic exercise. Because some of Andrew's music is pretty hard, but a lot of it is very straightforward, and singable with beautiful harmony. And I also wanted to throw some oddities in there, like we did "McNeil Island from Black Fire (Blue Note, 1963) as a duet with clarinet and guitar, and Ben commented, "No one ever covered that song. So, that's fun.

There's a line on a piece, and I'm not even sure how you say the title, and I actually left messages with Andrew Hill on his work phone machine, that I really wanted to get this line because it's a more current piece of his, and it's called, "Not Sa No Sa. The opening line is really fast, and I called Marty Ehrlich, Marty referred me to [trumpeter] Ron Horton, everybody was on tour and couldn't get the music to me soon enough, so what you have now is a super sloppy urban legend version of that piece. That's just the way it had to be.

I also originally intended to do a piece from the record he did with a jazz quartet and a string quartet, unreleased stuff—some of it emerged on a record called One for One, a twofer album from the seventies [ed. note: actually released on Blue Note in 1969]. We ran out of room, also I really would have loved to have had the original string parts rather than trying to do take downs on this crazy stuff that happens during this piano solo. Then, we would have had to get a string quartet, and we just ran out of space on the record as it was. I did want to add that extra flourish to the record, and now everyone's saying, well sure, you can do it on volume two.

AAJ: It seems like his Palmetto recordings brought everyone's attention back to him.

NC: Someone had given me a copy of CODA magazine when I was in Toronto, because the Singers The Giant Pin had been on some year end lists. And then there was this record, The Day the World Stood Still (Stunt, 2003), the Andrew Hill Jazz Octet plus 1, or something like that. It appeared on some year end lists, so I tried to find it. Couldn't even find it at Poo-Bah Records, Michael Davis couldn't even get it on computer anywhere to order it. Ultimately, a friend of mine saw it come up on e-bay and bought it for me. It's another live record with these Scandinavian horn players.

That record was highly regarded by the critics, but good luck finding it. The thing about the Palmetto stuff was you could actually find it. Andrew's been in the academic world for so long now, that's why he's not as noticeable I suppose, because he's been teaching. But also, think of the downturn creative music took in the eighties during the Reagan years when all the people that I grew up seeing in concert halls were now playing for 50-100 people in clubs, and how long can you do that and survive? People found other things to do keep their thing going.

AAJ: Do you have an eye toward another artist for a tribute session?

NC: There are actually two. I think this stuff gets pretty dangerous, by the way. You know, for awhile there I was actually in two bands that did electric Miles Davis music. I was originally in Yo Miles, and I was in Mark Isham's Silent Way project. That was ironic to me, in a way. When Tony Williams died, my brother Alex and [keyboardist] Wayne Peet and I played the Alligator Lounge—a tribute to Lifetime the week after he died, with basically no rehearsal, just got up there and wailed on these things. A recording of that floated around, and then I did Interstellar Space with Gregg Bendian. I don't want to become the king of the tribute records.

This whole tribute thing is an easy handle for people, but my reasons for doing it now were also because what with Wilco and all, there's a little bit more attention focused on me than usual, and I wanted to say something about music that people checking me out this year haven't confronted, and it's important to me for who I am. The two other things that have come to mind that were never designed to be related to the Andrew Hill thing, but have been discussed, I've always wanted to cover The Horizon Beyond (Emarcy, 1966), by the [guitarist] Attila Zoller quartet which would be really, really hard. It's a brilliant and super obscure record that was really influential on me when I heard it in the seventies. That's a fantasy.

Also, I've performed with [guitarist] Jeff Parker. Last December we played our version, with a quartet, of [pianist] Paul Bley's Turning Point (Improvising Artists, 1964), which is all [pianist] Carla Bley compositions. I think it would be really fun to record that with those guys. I have so many ideas. There's no market for it, but might as well try and get a lot of it recorded. We did this thing, Nate McBride was on bass, and Frank Rosaly on drums. They were guys I didn't even know, and they were so magnificent, I would just like to play anything with those guys, with Jeff. I love playing with Jeff.

AAJ: The Chicago thing is so strong.

Nels ClineNC: It is strong. I think they've worked hard to create some sort of sense of themselves in that way, it's been a militant effort. I'm not sure they're any more players than anywhere else, I think it's what they have as an identity, I think they have a sense of themselves. It puts them out there in that way. In Los Angeles, I'd say there's just as many great players, but they don't have that identity, and I think it's because everyone in LA has always had a chip on their shoulder about being from LA, and the rest of the world isn't helping, as far as that perception. Because nobody thinks anything good happens here, very few people do. Obviously, history is going to prove them wrong.

The feeling in Chicago is tougher, they just took a tougher stance. I think that Ken Vandermark's efforts have been far more militant. When I first got wind of him in the early nineties, there was a weird kind of exclusivity feeling about it, I mean they're working it pretty hard. I don't think anyone in LA is ever going to be that way, and I also think that's fine, personally. Just because one of things I've always liked about being here, and I've lived here my whole life for some strange reason, is that not only have I always found some good people to play with, and I think there are certainly more creative musicians now in Los Angeles than ever within memory, everybody's kind of in the same boat, which is to say kind of screwed. There's not a lot of competition, not a lot of people crawling all over each other for the same three gigs, because what's the point? What are we fighting for? Which is really not that different from other major cities in America, but the perception is a big part of it. There's nobody raking in the dough playing in New York City. Everyone goes to Europe or Japan, or whatever, to get paid.


Selected Discography

Nels Cline, New Monastery: A View into the Music of Andrew Hill
Wilco, Kicking Television: Live in Chicago
Nels Cline/Wally Shoup/Chris Corsano, Immolation/Immersion (Strange Attractors, 2005)
Nels Cline Singers, The Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone, 2004)
Nels Cline/Andrea Parkins/Tom Rainey, Out Trios Volume Three: Ash and Tabula (Atavistic, 2004)
Nels Cline/Vinny Golia, The Entire Time (Nine Winds, 2004)
Nels Cline/Devin Sarno Buried on Bunker Hill (Ground Fault, 2003)
Nels Cline Singers Instrumentals (Cryptogramophone, 2002)
Gregg Bendian's Interzone, Requiem for Jack Kirby
Nels Cline, Destroy All Nels Cline (Atavistic, 2001)
Nels Cline, The Inkling (Cryptogramophone) (2000)
Interstellar Spaces Revisited (with Greg Bendian) (Atavistic) (1999)<

Related Articles
International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, Day 1-5 (Concert Review, 2005)
Nels Cline: Intrepid Guitarist (Interview, 2004)
Nels Cline's Blue Mitt Ensemble Enchants Cryptonight (Concert Review, 2004)
A Fireside Chat with Nels Cline (Interview, 2003)
Dangerous Waves: Nels Cline, Thurston Moore, Zeena Parkins> (Concert Review, 2001)

Photo Credits:
Top Photo: Karen Cline

Bottom Photo: Martin Morisette



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