Alex Cline: Free-Spirited Drummer

R.J. DeLuke By

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The strengths and the degree of potential of each musician is only going to enhance the overall music if one is able to harness and highlight and reproduce those strengths. I think that's a large part of what being a bandleader is about.
Alex ClineWest coast drummer/percussionist Alex Cline is a sensitive player with a strong feel for interesting harmonies, shifting voices and changing moods when he writes music. It's a sensitivity not usually associated with drummers. But what's inside Cline, and comes through in his music, is from an artist and a musician, not merely a drummer.

He plays mainstream jazz gigs, but after his rock-influenced youth, he gravitated, almost by fate, to the free-form improvisers, getting his first break playing with Julius Hemphill. From that experience came a great many others. He's performed with an impressive list of musicians, including Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Frisell, Horace Tapscott, Henry Kaiser, John Carter. Cline, the twin brother of guitarist Nels Cline, headed in an improvisational direction from early on, recording a duo record with saxophonist Jamil Shabaka (Duo Infinity, Aten, 1977), and working on Vinnie Golia's Spirits and Fellowship (Nine Winds, 1977) with Carter and Roberto Miranda.

Cline, who grew up in the Los Angeles area and still resides there, was in his early 20s when a concert series materialized at a nearby venue, the Century City Playhouse, which was administered by an old high school friend. "It was a venue that attracted the more creative musicians playing jazz-type music here in L.A. back then," said Cline, adding with a chuckle, "Those people actually toured in their own country regularly at that time. This would have been in the day of things like Arista Freedom Records and Horizon and all these independent labels that were supporting that kind of music. So people coming through the west coast area had a place to stop in L.A. and play at the Century City Playhouse. Julius Hemphill was one of those people. He was coming through with Baikida Carroll and he wanted to play some music he had written for a trio (Hemphill on sax, Carroll on trumpet, with drums)." Cline was recommended and Hemphill was game.

"We played one gig here and he evidently liked what I did, so he invited me to play three nights with him up in Berkeley and invited me to play in Philadelphia, record an album and do a European tour. It was an amazing experience. I was 21 years old, from California—a wacky-looking guy with long blonde hair and a beard at the time. Nobody knew who I was. For him, it was a bit of a huge gamble." He also did a recording with Hemphill and Carroll at the end of 1977, "but it never came out," Cline recounts good-naturedly.

"The gig we did in Philadelphia had Abdul Wadud on cello, as well. (Julius) never told me what to play. I developed this distorted view of what playing this music could be like. The people I was playing with here, like Vinnie (Golia) and John Carter, were kind of the same way. Julius would get up and trust what I was doing and never told me, 'Do this. Do that. I want it like this.' He just let me play and he liked it, evidently. It was quite an experience for me."

It was experience that led him into a career of improvisational music that has many elements and influences. "I was incredibly fortunate in that the real elder statesmen of creative jazz music (in L.A.) were open and receptive to playing music with somebody like me, even going back to my early 20s," he said, respectfully. "If what I did seemed kind of potent, I was really still trying to figure out what it was all about. I got to play with people like John Carter and Ray Bradford and Horace Tapscott. This is not the most common experience elsewhere. These were people who were amazingly supportive and really open and accepting, and were also exemplary human beings. They were great role models for all of us. I feel incredibly blessed to have been here at a time when I was able to experience that with people like that."

Chapter Index

  1. New Music
  2. Remaining True
  3. Rock Drummer and Beyond
  4. Percussion
  5. Composing

New Music

Cline plays straight jazz with others, but his own recordings don't cover that ground. His latest, Continuation, released this year on Cryptogramophone, is a strong representation of where Cline is artistically. It's pastoral, it's movie score-like, it's serene and it's thoughtful. Compositions shift to different colors and sounds. Joined by four other musicians—Peggy Lee on cello, Myra Melford on piano, Scott Walton on bass and Jeff Gauthier on violin—he puts forth a variety of textures, starting with the soft and moody opening to "Nourishing Our Roots," which picks up steam as violin, bass and cello dance over Cline's array of percussion. "Cleaning Our Streams" opens with a long statement from bassist Walton before Cline and others join in a softly swinging mode that then expands to a deeper driving groove over which Melford plays harmonium.

Alex ClineTo describe each composition isn't particularly relevant. It's for the ears and for the spirit. "Cleaning Our Streams" segues into an inspired, compelling, exultant collaboration. "Fade to Green" is more pastoral and abstract. But while loose, it hangs together. "Steadfast" is a strong vehicle that allows "blowing" time for the group. The solos are wrapped inside the form, but there's still room for free-wheeling. Overall, there are influences from classical music, world music and other traditions, and there is a free spirit in the solo space and the composition.

"Each piece is different and takes its inspiration from different places, depending on the individual circumstance," says Cline of his compositional style and inspiration. "But overall, it would be safe to say that my ideas are heavily affected by my various musical influences, as well as by influences that are extra-musical—particularly in the case of a lot of the pieces on my last few CDs. If you, for example, have a piece dedicated to the memory of someone, there's something in that starting point that in some way dictates to me an idea that will take musical shape—even if it's a very vague and somewhat abstract idea.

"For the most part, my musical ideas come to me somewhat complete. In other words, the overall form and the overall idea comes to me first. Then I go about both filling in the blanks and putting all the details in, as well as editing my ideas as I go along, because frequently my ideas start a lot larger than they wind up.

"In terms of the music not being strict head arrangements and that sort of thing: I like that kind of music, but I think I'm usually trying to make some musical statement that is a little more broad than your basic head arrangement. Also, because I play a lot of (mainstream) music with other people, I don't feel a great need to do that myself so much, although some of what I do is almost like head arrangements. "Steadfast" on the new CD is as close as I get—that, and on Sparks Fly Upward (Cryptogramophone, 1999), the piece dedicated to Tony Williams, "Audacity." It functions fairly closely as more of a head arrangement kind of thing. But in both of those cases, when the theme comes back in the end, I've created a different musical setting for the theme at the end, so it isn't exactly the same."

The new record plays out naturally. There's no way to fully envision what is improvised and what is written. That pleases Cline, he notes with glee. "To me, when you can't really tell, when you get that blurring of composition and improvisation, then I feel like it's closer to being successful, according to my standard, my barometer."

Cline says he writes with his band members' skills and personalities in mind, yet he is aware that after a recording, there may be different musicians playing the music, because of schedules and people's availability. "I may wind up playing a piece that was originally written for someone who's no longer playing it. I will usually change the piece in some way that will work for those who are going to play it. So the music on Continuation was written specifically for these musicians to play.

"It helps to have some experience playing with the people and to have heard them enough to get a sense of what the possibilities are. The strengths and the degree of potential of each musician is only going to enhance the overall music if one is able to harness and highlight and reproduce those strengths. I think that's a large part of what being a bandleader is about. It's finding what's unique about each individual voice and being able to place that voice in the overall musical presentation in a way that will not only provide an opportunity for that musician to shine and have something interesting to explore as an artist, but also to create a much more successful and satisfying musical experience overall."

Alex Cline

He admits that the music of Continuation wasn't put together with the thought that it would be later played live. The schedules of the band members are one reason. He's also aware that this type of music isn't the easiest to market and get venues and clubs to consider backing.

"It is difficult to find a venue for this kind of music. Not just because it isn't particularly categorizable, and certainly not particularly commercial, but because the dynamic range is really wide and the amount of space we can take up on stage—largely because of me—can be a challenge. Your average jazz club sometimes has too small of a space. But we're flexible," he notes. "It was harder in the days of the Alex Cline Ensemble when we had a lot more instruments, a lot of them were electric, and things took up a lot more space. That was a very difficult band to find a proper venue for. Especially when you have a vocalist. You need a good sound system and all that stuff."

He admits his larger group, the Alex Cline Ensemble, which existed for about 12 years, was difficult to book, and it was not easy to get the music presented properly. "I think part of the reason is that we didn't have a lot of opportunities to regularly play. So we couldn't get really comfortable and adjusted to the live context. That group, just in terms of getting the sound right, was really difficult. We'll see how it goes with this group. We haven't tried it yet."


Remaining True

Knowing the music isn't particularly commercial, Cline has no inclination to change that just to try and be more popular. He sticks to his vision. Changing to more familiar forms "isn't a temptation for me. Part of the reason for that is, I work mostly as a sideman, therefore I play a lot of other people's music that covers a lot of the ground that my music doesn't cover. Yet my own music covers a lot of ground that other people's music doesn't cover.

Alex Cline / Nels Cline Nels and Alex Cline

"When I put my musical ideas together, I do tend to limit myself and focus on certain things that I most want to hear and most want to experience. That tends to not include a lot of the areas that I already do and a lot of the areas that might be considered more commercial. My brother Nels plays a lot more music that reflects more of his rock influence, being an electric guitarist. While that's way back in my background, that's not something I'm tempted to do. In terms of what I'm trying to say musically, it's kind of irrelevant. But if it ever becomes relevant, I suppose I would do it. But it certainly wouldn't be because of a self-conscious (effort) to make the music more appealing, lucrative or to please somebody who might think it was cool or hip to do it.

"The same with doing a straight-ahead thing. I play a certain amount of straight-ahead jazz. I play a lot of people's music where, while it's not exactly straight-ahead, it employs a lot of the conventions of that music, like swing time, solos, trading fours. I really enjoy those things, but I don't feel a need to do that in my music, because my music seems to be more about something else."

Like his brother, the drummer was first influenced by rock music, which was the flavor of the day as he grew up. The '60s and early '70s were times when cutting-edge rock, jazz fusion and even folk-rock (Dylan plugging in), were prevalent. But his musical studies started on clarinet in elementary school, an instrument pushed on some kids so they could fit into the school orchestra. "I didn't like the clarinet at all, but I decided to play it anyway. My brother decided to play the trumpet. It was very soon thereafter we got the rock-and-roll bug. By the time we were 11, I had taken up the drum set and he had taken up the guitar."



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