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The Nels Cline 4 At Higher Ground

Doug Collette By

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The Nels Cline 4
Showcase Lounge at Higher Ground
South Burlington, Vermont
July 2, 2018

The actual calendar date of July 4th was two days away and the biggest local celebration was scheduled for the very next night at Burlington's waterfront. Yet some bonafide fireworks occurred in the Showcase Lounge of Higher Ground on Monday July 2 and while there were many fewer witnesses to this summer holiday celebration, at least compared to the neighboring city's event, the enthusiasm was proportionate in the venue's smaller of two rooms.

Apart from the fact the band took the stage roughly thirty minutes late, pre-show anticipation from the minimal turnout was understated but palpable, perhaps because the namesake of the Nels Cline 4 has his reputation, as does band mate guitarist and regular collaborator Julian Lage. In fact, the latter's name is rising in profile as he leads a trio of his own on stage and in the studio and, given how prominently the younger fellow figures in this quartet's music (not to mention how long and often he's played with the bandleader and erstwhile member of Wilco), one wonders if Cline means to showcase his guitar counterpart.

Certainly more than a few in the audience either came to see the tousle-haired, swarthy young musician or were duly (and rightfully) impressed with what they saw and heard him do: Lage received the most sustained applause during both rounds of band introductions. But then he deserved the accolades because, as the four ran through virtually all the material from the album Currents, Constellations (Blue Note, 2018), Cline often deferred to his counterpart, allowing him to extend the introduction of melodic motifs and often assuming the first solo on tunes like "Swing Ghost '59" and Carla Bley's "Temporarily."

It's easy to see how Julian Lage filled the (unspoken) bill. This foursome's approach to material, like "Furtive,"largely composed by Cline, offers both challenge and opportunity for him to step outside that comfort zone of the linear depictions of melody he prefers and emulate the more abstract style of his mentor. That said, while Nels certainly relishes playing the fragmented and oblique likes of "Imperfect 10"—its main structure almost but not quite a riff because both he guitarists and the rhythm section (bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Dave King) suggest rather than hammer the progressions-he also savors displays of poise and precision such as on "River Mouth (Parts 1& 2), Indian raga strains of which closed the formal single set.

Such relatively quiet intervals were actually the most impressive and memorable of the evening, beginning with a tribute to the late guitarist John Abercrombie, where Cline compelled the attention of the approximately hundred attendees with the pensive dignity of his playing. His work on the fretboard during own "As Close As That" was much similar, drawing as raucous a response as "Amenette." and in so doing solidifying an evolution of this performance as a corollary to his playing style: just as Cline plays in the usual spaces of a tune, taking an elliptical arc to his resolutions, the concert was like a mirror image of the customary build of intensity, becoming softer in tone over the course of its duration.

Tantalizing as was that subdued instrumental approach (transmitted in the proper mix by Higher Ground's house sound), it was a bit surprising that so few in the (mostly male, guitar hero-worshiping) audience left early, spoke while the band played or, apart from early on, used cellphones to take photos. But then it wasn't just the leader of the Nels Cline 4 that kept everyone in this small room so engrossed for the ninety minutes; no doubt even the fellow reading a book at the bar prior to the show left edified. Because the call for an encore was as honest as the respectful accolades accorded the fragile beauty of "For Each, A Flower."


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