Guitarist Nels Cline has led the Nels Cline Singers since 2002. While they have sometimes had guest performers on their recordings, the core band has been a trio of Cline, drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Trevor Dunn (originally Devin Hoff). This album expands the group to a sextet with the addition of saxophonist Skerik, keyboardist Brian Marsella and percussionist Cyro Baptista. The experimental ante was further upped by the fact that they had never before played together in this combination, and that they learned Cline's music at the recording sessions, in addition to creating collective improvisations.
It is a diverse program, with a big sound which takes full advantage of the expanded lineup. The program starts with an arrangement of legendary Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso's "Segunda," a surprising choice with a haunting melody, which also highlights a dialog between Cline's guitar, Skerik's saxophone, and Marsella's Fender Rhodes electric piano. The exchange begins lyrically, but builds to full scale energy jazz. Cline's "BeamSpiral" shifts gears to a mellow contemporary jazz feel featuring the Rhodes, reminiscent of In A Silent Way-era Miles Davis. The ballad "Nightstand" opens with acoustic piano and saxophone. Cline makes a ghostly entrance with echoing electronics, accompanied by sparse percussion, joined by the rest of the band for a gentle ending.
"Stump The Panel" is the first (and the longest, at over 17 minutes) of the collective improvisations. Opening with legato atmospherics, it builds to a tumultuous climax before Cline and Skerik introduce a short repeating riff which drives everyone forward. Just after the six-minute mark the saxophone leads the way into a calm central section, which Amendola interrupts with a regular drum beat. After a jumble of calmer (but spooky) atmospherics (including some whispering voices), the piece ends with intermittent overdriven sounds, threatening a big climax which doesn't come.
"Princess Phone" is driving funk, this time recalling On The Corner-era Miles Davis, as well as a showcase for a fleet Rhodes solo and a free drum solo. In its brief time "African Treasure" finds space for sparse sounds recalling a kora, mbira and drum ensemble. "A Place On The Moon" is the third and final improvisation. Almost entirely an exercise in atmosphere, it emphasizes collective sound textures (which do indeed sound spacey). Skerik's saxophone pops out of the mix occasionally, as does the leader's guitar. Closer "Passed Down" finds Cline on acoustic guitar, with saxophone in the lead. It is a lyrical, almost bucolic ending. Cline takes an interesting solo with sitar evocations.
There is a lot of music on offer here, and it is consistently interesting. Fans of Cline's unbridled guitar playing may be a bit disappointed; the focus is more on his composing and band leading, although there is plenty of guitar as well, albeit sometimes in short bursts. Definitely a distinctive addition to the Nels Cline discography.
Segunda; Beam/Spiral; Nightstand; Stump the Panel; Headdress; Princess Phone; The Pleather Patrol; Ashcan Treasure; A Place on The Moon; Passed Down.
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