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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2014, Days 4-6

John Kelman By

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Cline's career dates back 30 years, but his star in the jazz world, while already firmly established for his own projects like the ongoing Nels Cline Singers last heard on Macroscope (Mack Avenue, 2014), has also been built on his participation in other groups, like former Cryptogramophone label head/violinist Jeff Gauthier's Goatette, violinist Jenny Scheinman's Mischief & Mayhem, drummer Scott Amendola's group and more. But it was around 2004, when Cline was recruited by singer/songwriter and bandleader Jeff Tweedy to join Wiico, that his profile took a sharp turn towards an upward trajectory. That jazz purists accused Cline of "moonlighting" couldn't have been further from the truth; as a 2004 All About Jazz interview made clear, Cline is as happy to play The Byrds as he is Jim Hall, as comfortable in the world of punk rock as he is left-of-center spontaneity.

Still, that his ongoing tenure with Wilco has raised his visibility is undeniable; all that means, though, is that people who might never have given him the time of day before are now following his extra-Wilco career with almost as much interest as they are his work with Tweedy's trendsetting group. It means that he's got the means and the profile to continue his own activities with far great chance of them being heard. If his relatively new duo project with Lage—a guitarist who, at less than half Cline's age, has already established himself as not just a guitarist of note—is but the most recent of a spate of projects that also include a recent collaboration with Medeski, Martin & Wood on Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2 (Woodstock Sessions, 2014), then based on the duo's Ottawa performance, the November release of their first album together, Rooms (Mack Avenue), can't come soon enough.

A guitarist who could have taken an easy route after first showing up on the radar as a member of Gary Burton's band—beginning in 2004 with Generations (Concord), when the now-26 year-old six-stringer had just gotten his driver's license (and seemed to have only recently started shaving, and continuing right up to present day on the vibraphonist's Guided Tour (Mack Avenue, 2013)—instead, Lage has proven, beyond being a tremendously talented player and conceptualist, to be one who is, like Cline, all about risk, about personal growth, and about music without compromise, as his two recordings as a leader— Sounding Point (EmArcy, 2009) and even more reaching follow-up, Gladwell (EmArcy, 2011)—have amply demonstrated.

Certainly there was no shortage of risk at the duo's Ottawa performance. Wandering onstage in a relaxed manner—with an informality that made the intimacy of the Fourth Stage more like being a fly on the wall while the two played for each other in a living room somewhere—the sold out audience (this show might easily have filled the NAC Studio) was treated to a set that harkened back to great guitar pairings of the past, a configuration that seems less prevalent than it once was, when players like Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Charlie Byrd and others would regularly come together. But whereas those pairings of old were often firmly planted in the mainstream, Lage and Cline were as freewheeling as it gets, playing music that, while largely predicated on some kind of structure ranging from detailed to sketch-like, was truly free; music that could be jagged, angular and aggressive, to be sure, filled with idiosyncratic lines and cued changes, but could also be gentle, lyrical and flat-out beautiful. While, for some, free playing means music without any limiting definers like time, changes or melody, true freedom means being able to play what you want as the spirit moves you and as the music demands.

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