This was one of those reviews that makes me realize how much I love writing. On Friday, I was all ready to write a fairly superficial review of the recording judging it on how well it tackles Cline’s stated objectives about putting a personal spin on mood music and romance. But one of my favorite editors, Hugo Lindgren, would always encourage me to think harder about my subject matter, so as I walked to my retail sidelight job that day, leaving a half finished review on my hard drive, I began thinking about how the repertoire, a mix of classics and darker less well known pieces, relate. Suddenly I was careening down a snow covered thought mountain on skis with the facility of Lindsay Vonn. Cline’s recording is a commitment, two discs, but if you like music, you’ll hear things differently after spending some time with it.
‘Lovers’ by Nels Cline Review: Refreshing the American Songbook
Guitarist Nels Cline, who is 60, has established a formidable reputation in three styles of music. He is a prominent figure in jazz, both through his tributes to greats like Andrew Hill and his work as a sideman with Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem. He has collaborated with indie rockers Mike Watt and Thurston Moore, and since 2004 he has been a member of the hard-to-classify band Wilco. On his new recording, “Lovers” (Blue Note), he introduces an unforeseen new style—romanticism. The two-disc album features Mr. Cline and a large jazz ensemble deftly working their way through American Songbook classics, but it isn’t a repudiation of his other interests. The band also navigates its way through some thorny Cline originals and a tune each by the members of Sonic Youth, Annette Peacock, and the duo of Arto Lindsay and Peter Scherer. What results is a fascinating re-evaluation of the classic tunes, an extension of Mr. Cline’s virtuosity, and a sense that the dots in Mr. Cline’s diverse career connect in previously unseen ways.
The music on “Lovers” is performed by a 23-piece band that includes ace musicians like trumpeter Steven Bernstein, guitarist Julian Lage and clarinetist Ben Goldberg; the band also features six stringed instruments and a harp. Rather than immediately overwhelm you, the lush sound from Mr. Cline’s large ensemble eases in on the first track as horn and string unisons build a gentle call and response on the leader’s aptly named “Introduction/Diaphanous.” This gives way to relaxed, reserved playing highlighted by Mr. Cline’s crisp solo. The guitarist’s approach continues through the Rodgers and Hart standard “Glad to Be Unhappy,” Mr. Cline’s own “Hairpin & Hatbox,” and the Wayne King/Victor Young/Egbert Van Alstyne/Haven Gillespie waltz “Beautiful Love.” The mood darkens sharply for the Jimmy Giuffre tune “Cry, Want” and Gabor Szabo’s “Lady Gabor.” It’s as if the sunny tour of Hollywood stopped and nightfall came amid the dark alleys of Los Angeles’s seedier areas, or a classic romance suddenly turned into a film noir. The sweetness of the earlier tracks becomes spare, precisely arranged counterpoint to Mr. Cline’s assertive playing. The recording continues in that vein, with blocs of standards offset by Mr. Cline’s originals and somewhat darker works by others.
As a result, the standards feel more contemporary—part of a postmillennial musical landscape rather than a soundtrack to a glorious but lost past. Mr. Cline has stripped them of nostalgia but kept the musical core and built upon it. This is apparent when the recording’s 18 tracks are listened to in their intended order, but the concept glows in high relief when excerpts are isolated and listened to out of order. For listeners willing to jump around the recording, the rustic wit of the Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern nugget “Why Was I Born?” leads well into the archly melodic “Snare, Girl” by the members of Sonic Youth. Similarly the jittery rhythms of the Lindsay/Scherer “It Only Has to Happen Once” are a good lead in for the busy intro and antsy rendition of the Sammy Fain/Paul Francis Webster evergreen “Secret Love.”
Mr. Cline was born in Los Angeles and has recorded frequently with two trios, most notably the Nels Cline Singers, a group that does not include vocals. He has appeared on more than 200 recordings as a sideman, and Rolling Stone named him one of the top 100 guitarists of all time. According to his website, he began conceiving “Lovers” during the ’80s, while traveling. He wanted to address romance and mood music, the underside of love as well as the happily-ever-after part. With his diverse repertoire, expert arrangements and his band’s dynamic playing, he has accomplished this and illustrated that emotional depth matters more in music today than genre category.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.