Nels Cline was already well on his way to becoming a guitar hero when he got the call to join Wilco in 2004. Though that gig brought his playing to a much wider audience, in the preceding 20-plus years Cline had played with a mind-boggling array of top notch musicians on more than 200 albums, in addition to his solo recording and groups Nels Cline Trio and Nels Cline Singers.
There are few guitarists around who seem as equally adept at jazz, improv, country, rock, pop and noise styles. To give you an idea of his flexibility, during this year’s festival he’ll be playing with violinist Jenny Scheinman in her group Mischief and Mayhew, in the Rova Saxophone Quartet’s expanded ensemble during their take on John Coltrane’s “Ascension”, and a production of his 2016 album Lovers.
A work he’s been planning since the 1980s, Cline says of Lovers, “I always wanted the record to be a somewhat dark and disturbing ‘mood music’ record. My idea was that it would reflect some less-traveled aspects of the idea of romance, love, and sex.” Expertly executed by an ensemble of more than 20 musicians, the 19 songs on the double album include pieces by Rodgers and Hart, Gábor Szabó, Jerome Kern, Annette Peacock, Henry Mancini, Sonic Youth, Ambitious Lovers, as well as several of his own compositions. His first release for the classic Blue Note label, it may stand as a career high point, and he’s bringing a rare live performance of it to Big Ears.
In advance of his appearances at Big Ears, Nels Cline consented to an email interview.
Hello, Nels. First of all, congratulations on Lovers. It’s a fantastic album and quite an achievement. You’ve said Lovers has been gestating for more than 25 years, I wonder if you could elaborate on that a bit, and how and if your thoughts about the American songbook, and “mood music” might have changed since you first imagined creating such a work.
Nels Cline: Well, I think my liner notes say everything on these topics rather clearly, but this record is not about The American Songbook – it just happens to have songs associated with IT. There are songs by Michel Portal, Sonic Youth, Annette Peacock, Jimmy Giuffre, Henry Mancini, and even yours truly. All of these songs relate to points of inspiration for me and, crucially, to the concepts of romance/love/intimacy/sex and how music can relay these impressions/sensations, AKA “mood”. I kind of blew it when I invoked this term “mood music”, but the repertoire of Lovers does intend to create various moods relating to the above human feelings and functions in some way while also paying respect to some of my favorite songs that endeavor to tackle such topics. Even the lyrics to the songs that have them were important to their selection, which is why they are reprinted in the album package. As I was first imagining the record back in the 80s, it was probably a lot darker overall. MOODIER! It ended up with more “light” – or at least more balance between the dark and twisted and the romantic and breezy. Why? Perhaps because I am now in my 60s. Maybe I’m even a happier person!
Given you’ve been planning something like this for so long, were the recording sessions purely enjoyable for you, or were there unexpected hassles or stressors when leading and recording a lengthy work with such a large ensemble?
Nels Cline: I tend to be nervous and insecure about most things – especially high-level music making. But to be honest, once we got going and I felt the enthusiasm and commitment from my colleagues – many of whom are real life heroes and influences – I was able to buckle down and just do the work as best as I could. With someone like Michael Leonhart running the session musically and David Breskin and Ron Saint Germain behind the glass (so to speak), I had a fantastic team. This got me pretty close to “purely enjoyable”.
Lovers seems like a particularly involved work to perform live, and it has only been performed a few times. What are the challenges of mounting this event, and why did you want to bring it to Big Ears?
Nels Cline: It was Ashley (Capps) who wanted Lovers at Big Ears (bless him)! The challenges are many: I only want to use Alex Cline and Devin Hoff as the rhythm section and only Michael Leonhart can really properly rehearse and conduct this music, and if I can get more of the artists on the record to play there are the predictable scheduling headaches, etc, as well as the simple fact that this is expensive to present by virtue of its sheer girth, etc. And every time we do it the ensemble instrumentation changes slightly- for example, try finding someone besides Ben Goldberg with a contra-alto clarinet or someone like JD Parran or Charles Pillow who owns and can play double reeds, bass flute, bass saxophone…. Thus, every rehearsal (rehearsal time: 5 hours minimum – we usually play about 16 or 17 of the 19 pieces on the record), Michael also must adapt/tweak the arrangements. The size of the ensemble on the recording varies from 13 to 23 depending on the piece. Some pieces that didn’t have strings, for example, may now have them so people aren’t sitting there waiting to play a song that does, or whatever. Going into recording the record I thought of it as ONLY a record and thought I would never play it ‘live,’ and I said as much. Ooops!
You’re a big admirer of the great jazz guitarist Jim Hall, and you can hear this on the album. You had a friendship him with didn’t you? How long did you know him, and did you ever talk shop with him, or play with or for him?
Nels Cline: I was really just getting to know Jim. We weren’t pals. I never played with him, and maybe he listened to some of my records (he said he did), but he didn’t like to talk shop at all. He liked to drink espresso, tell and hear amusing jokes and stories and laugh with his friends. I met him through Brian Camelio (ArtistShare Records), who invited me to have lunch with Jim and his friends when he learned that I lived a block away from Jim and Jane. The longest I ever spoke with Jim one-to-one was when I walked him home after one of these lunches, on his birthday. He passed away days later, on the last day tracking “Lovers”, which was pretty crushing. According to Brian, Jim was interested in me and my music, but we never spoke of it.
You’re also performing with Mischief and Mayhem at the festival. Can you talk a bit about your work in that group, how long you’ve known Jenny Scheinman and how long you’ve been working with her?
Nels Cline: I met Jenny through Scott Amendola who, interestingly, will be subbing for Jim Black at our Big Ears set. He played in her band and she played in his, and eventually I started playing with her in the Scott Amendola Band. And (bassist) Todd Sickafoose was also in both bands at the time. We toured around the West, had a gig now and then parts East. I guess we met maybe 15 years ago (sorry – I am not so good with linear time sometimes). Mischief & Mayhem was born out of a long run Jenny had on Tuesday nights at a bar in Brooklyn called Barbes, and has been going on and off for maybe 9 years now. Apparently, I referred to the band as doing mischief and mayhem in an email or something, and Jenny ran with it. Jenny’s music and playing is singular – nobody writes or plays like her. I find some of her pieces to be quite moving and interestingly open in spite of their specificity compositionally. We have a lot of fun playing off of each other and have since those early days in Scott’s Band (which still convenes occasionally, by the way).
I will also be playing in the ROVA Saxophone Quartet’s OrkestROVA at Big Ears doing “Electric Ascension” – something I have done many times and which I always find exhilarating.
This is your third visit to Big Ears, and you’ve performed multiple times each year. Do you have any particular highlights that stand out from your previous visits, and any particular event you’re excited for this time around?
Nels Cline: I am reeling looking at the list this year. I have no idea yet who is playing when and, owing to the number of things I need to accomplish, I worry that I will have to miss out on most of it, so am afraid to check the actual schedule! I missed Frederik Rzweksi playing “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” last year and I got so depressed… I did enjoy MEV, though…. This year the list is insane; my man Cyro Baptista and Banquet Of The Spirits, the Alice Coltrane thing, Jerry Douglas, Arto Lindsay, Craig Taborn, Ikue Mori, Jason Moran/Milford Graves, Susan Alcorn, Kid Koala, Roscoe Mitchell…. Tons of my friends are playing and yeah – I’ll want to check out Eucademix (my wife Yuka’s solo thing)!