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NUVO Interview: Nels Cline

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Rock fans might know Nels Cline for his unconventional guitar work with the acclaimed band Wilco, but for nearly three decades prior, he’s been carving out a unique niche as a solo artist and hired gun with interests in pop, country, post-bop jazz, experimental rock and avant-garde improv.

This spring, between Wilco dates and other projects, Cline is on the road with the instrumental trio he assembled in 2001, ironically dubbed the Nels Cline Singers. With material including cuts from their recent third album, Draw Breath on the Cryptogramophone label, they will perform June 4 at the Jazz Kitchen.

Though it fits under the jazz umbrella, the group’s approach is unusual for the supper club circuit. While upright bassist Devin Hoff holds down the low end, Cline and drummer/percussionist Scott Amendola use electronic effects to expand the reach of their instruments.

Will it fly at the Kitchen?

“I think the jury is out as to whether or not we’re going to offend people with our sonic sensibilities,” says Cline, chatting before a Wilco sound check in Lawrence, Kan. “We’ve played at Jazz Standard in Manhattan, and they didn’t seem too upset. And the same goes for Yoshi’s in Oakland, and that’s a jazz supper club, too.”

Born in 1956, Cline — called “The World’s Most Dangerous Guitarist” by Jazz Times — has soaked up a long history of musical innovation. He grew up in the golden age of rock guitar, listening to Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, the Allman Brothers and Neil Young. He was turned on to jazz by saxophone astronaut John Coltrane and drew six-string inspiration from old school players like Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery as well as fusion guitarists such as John McLaughlin and John Abercrombie.

Describing his current rock work, however, he notes influences as disparate as John Cipollina of the ’60s Frisco band Quicksilver Messenger Service, Tom Verlaine of ’70s new-wavers Television and the ’80s noise assault of Sonic Youth. He has performed or recorded with a list that includes Rickie Lee Jones, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, jazz bassist Charlie Haden and indie-rock heroes Mike Watt and Thurston Moore.

Cline talks more about his art in the text below, which is edited to make the questions smarter and the answers more concise.

NUVO: Jazz horn players like Coltrane pushed their work to cosmic extremes, but it seems like jazz guitarists were more likely to stick with conventional harmony and muted tones. Why so?

Cline: I think there’s only a handful of guys, and mostly in the early ’70s, who departed from that vocabulary and that tone. Certainly one of the first, besides John McLaughlin, is Larry Coryell, and the whole jazz-rock thing sort of started with those two guys. The music was really wide open then, but it gradually narrowed, especially as far as jazz guitar goes. I think eventually they circled the wagons and tried to protect the music from pop influences. Even the language of a blues guitar sound would have been considered too impure.

NUVO: How does your respect for the past jibe with your use of electronics?

Cline: In my case, I don’t know why I’m drawn to wacky noises and effects pedals and all this kind of stuff. It’s just the way my imagination works. I just imagine sounds that aren’t really guitar sounds, and I’m influenced by sounds that aren’t jazz.

NUVO: What are the differences between playing a role in a six-piece rock band vs. fronting a jazz trio?

Cline: I love playing with [Wilco leader] Jeff Tweedy, because we have such a good time with all the different things we can do with our guitars. And sometimes with [multi-instrumentalist] Pat Sansone, we have three guitars. The reason I even started a trio in the late ’80s was to kick my own butt, because I was convinced that I didn’t have the chops, or whatever it took. Sometimes I do wish there was another instrument, just to lighten the load so I don’t have to listen to myself so much.

NUVO: Why is your current trio called the “Singers”?

Cline: It’s my paltry wit. I didn’t want to call it a trio because I wanted to honor the previous trio, which was together about six years and had an electric bass. Essentially, the Singers are probably a little bit more jazz, a little more swing, a little more spring in our step with this rhythm section. The other trio seemed a little more rock.

NUVO: But no one really sings, right?

Cline: I have actually deigned to sing in public at times, but I’m trying to spare the world too much trauma and dismay. Sometimes I sing through my guitar pickups, but calling our first record Instrumentals kind of set it straight from the beginning.

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