Nels Cline on Why Playing Jazz Has Never Been More Important

Nels Cline. Nathan West

Since Nels Cline joined Wilco in 2004, the band’s reputation as a transcendent, sprawlingly mercurial live act was all but assured.

Following the band’s release of A Ghost is Born, Cline’s first record with the band that year was Kicking Television, a live set recorded in the band’s hometown Chicago that showcased just how muscular Wilco had become with Cline and rhythm guitarist Pat Sansone on deck. Cline’s particular playing style continues to captivate fans who cherish the variety of sounds he’s able tap into on the five records that band’s released since.

Intrepid ears will tell you that Cline’s dexterous playing didn’t just come out of nowhere. The 61-year-old guitarist has been a mainstay of the West Coast jazz and “new music” communities since 1980, when a collaboration with the late Eric Von Essen led them to form Quartet Music and began what would become a 37-year career making some of the most adventurous, genre-bending recordings, not only in the jazz world, but in the experimental pop, country, punk and noise scenes, too.

Though Wilco tour almost ceaselessly, Cline’s managed to stay active in the collaborative jazz world. From 2013’s Racy and 2014’s Room, his intimate, interplay-heavy records with composer Julian Lange, to last year’s sprawling, reinterpretation of “mood music” standards, Lovers, Cline’s committed to expanding his palette, pushing himself to both honor old sounds and make new ones.

On Saturday, Cline debuts The Nels Cline Four, his new quartet with Lage, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Tom Rainey, at Le Poisson Rouge.

It’s a fairly conservative set-up for Cline, who’s not bringing any effects except his volume pedal—the strange new places he goes to with The Nels Cline Singers and his deconstructed musical conversations between guitars with Lage show he’s still down to take risks.

The quartet hits Victoriaville, Quebec, on May 21 before playing in front of their biggest audience this summer during Wilco’s own, beloved Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCA, where prior Cline projects have caused many a cool dad to scratch their beards in intrigued perplexity. Cline’s beyond excited to debut the quartet at LPR, he tells me while walking down Park Slope and looking at the cherry blossoms, because that was where his American wedding ceremony to his wife, Cibo Matto‘s Yuka Honda, took place in 2010. There were cherry blossoms all over the room then, too.

That was also the year the West Coast Cline officially moved to the city, and we’re happy to have him. Over jerk chicken and beer at BK9, he indulged me with a deep dive into his thoughts on changing jazz communities, composition, and staying open to new experiences.

Nels Cline Four play Le Poisson Rouge on May 20. Tony Margherita Management

So Nels Cline Four is completely new. You’re playing with the ensemble at Solid Sound, but even before then, you’re debuting it at LPR.

That’s correct. After LPR, the next day, we’re going to play at Victoriaville in Canada. Then the next thing we do will be Solid Sound.

Why Canada?

The Victoriaville Festival. It’s kind of an avant-garde music festival, I’ve played there a few times. They have jazz artists, but sometimes they have industrial sounds, so-called “noise,” all kinds of stuff. This will be one of the more straight-ahead things they’ll present, this quartet. And Michel Levasseur, the overseer, I gave him a choice of things. He wanted me back for the 33rd year, and he picked this, which surprised me because on paper it’s a little conservative for them. They’ve been releasing music from the festival for years. They once did a CD of the trio I had with Andrea Parkins and Tom Rainey called Downfall live at Victoriaville a few years ago.

But for this quartet, you mentioned Tom and you’ve recorded with Julian Lage before but not Scott Colley, although Julian himself has played with Scott. So how’d this come together, what’s the genesis?

When Julian and I started playing as a duo, which unto itself is one of my favorite things I’ve ever been able to do with music my whole life, we still kind of discussed the idea of someday doing a quartet to see what it would be like, to expand our duo language into a quartet format. At that time, Julian was starting to experiment with looping in Eric Harland’s group, he brought his laptop with all these glitchy, Aphex Twin-esque things that he was investigating, and I thought maybe I’d have my whole sort of looping universe. I guess it’s about four or five years later, we decide that we don’t do that, but we will try a quartet, which we first did last August during my week at The Stone.

Surprisingly, Scott has been really wanting to play with me. I’ll do anything with Tom Rainey anytime, and Julian hadn’t played with Tom before. I didn’t realize that Tom and Scott had been this constantly working rhythm section here in New York in the ’90s. They played hundreds of times together, so that actually turned out to be really amusing.

“That’s the one hat trick at this point, deciding what aspect of my language will really be dominant in this quartet. I’m kind of just a chameleon, or an amorphous blob.”

You don’t have to work to fight for that chemistry because you already know it exists.

Right, and so I decided to try to do this under my name because I’m basically going to musically direct it and Julian has his own trio now, which he wasn’t doing when I met him. He was at the end of this other group with cello, bass and percussion. And he’s cool with that. It’ll be my music and some unoriginals that I like. It’s a good group for these songs, and an homage to these various guitar players.

You mention the “language of a duo” with Julian. The interplay between you two on a record like Room seems so hard to amplify with four people. There’s an intimacy there, a dialogue happening. Do you even try to keep that, and just add on more layers?

Well it’s definitely not going to have that intimacy, but ideally, it’s going to feature the interplay between guitars that Julian and I are capable of doing, maybe without over-emphasizing soloing, although there will be solos because it’s a jazz quartet. I’d like to take time to build a quartet language. I know that Tom and Scott are capable of all kinds of musical fabulousness. Knowing Tom and how he plays, he can be very conversational. He doesn’t have to just play time. That said, there are songs that’ll be played pretty straightforward, songs of mine.

But I’d like to eventually develop a language where it’s not just about trading solos, and Julian and I can do that instantly. And I feel like after all these years that Scott’s spent with Jim Hall and Andrew Hill, he can pretty much do anything. So I’m excited about developing this quartet language, seeing how far it can go, and in so doing, limiting myself in terms of the guitar palette to really just a straightforward sound, playing straightforward notes. As far as I know I’m not going to do any looping or use any delay, any kind of processing other than a volume pedal, which I always have.

I thought about the tune “Art of Almost” when you just mentioned Julian’s looping. That same looping seems like an outlier to your Wilco work. Is it something you’d ever want to revisit with these guys?

That’s something I do with The [Nels Cline] Singers more, I’m still concocting a new Singers recording where I want to add the keyboardist Brian Marsella, as a five-piece rather than a three-piece, because we have Cyro Baptista as well. That’s where the sonic mayhem language is more suitable. I’m very lucky in this regard, that I get to try these different things. Starting the duo with Julian, we met at a crucial time in my life, and started playing in this way that was totally natural. At the same time, perhaps it was freer than what most people associate with Julian’s music. But it was completely natural to us, and something we hope to do forever, as long as we’re alive. I’m a lot older than Julian…we’ll see how long we can go.

Julian Lage and Nels Cline. Justin Camerer

I’m really interested in what we can do with Julian now, with his Telecaster and [Fender] Champ amp. I have this guitar that’s being put together, that does everything, so I don’t have to bring more than one. That’s been the challenge of most of my non-Wilco life, always wanting to play 12-string, wanting to have a hollow-body guitar, a solid-body guitar, have them set up differently…now I’m just trying to have my cake and eat it too with this one guitar and see how it goes. That’s the one hat trick at this point, deciding what aspect of my language will really be dominant in this quartet. I’m kind of just a chameleon, or an amorphous blob. [Laughs]

How do you get that distance and perspective from your own work? You’ve said before that Wilco and your jazz or improvisational work talk to each other, that one informs the other. But the last few Wilco recordings are like The Grateful Dead in the sense that the studio cuts are really short, meat and potatoes, then expanded live. I’m wondering how that fits into it.

Well we just played Big Ears, and Jeff did this full-on noise trio, so some skronk is in the background all the time. It’s in the picture. It’s there as something that can inform the music at any point. The last two Wilco records were very Jeff-centric. He played a lot of guitar on those records, and wanted to do something very concise. He’s kind of constantly playing against expectations, trying to keep people on their toes, including the band. [Laughs] He’s just so prolific, too, it’s hard to keep up with him.

Nels Cline of Wilco on day 2 of the 2013 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

It’s hard to keep up with all of you! Last year’s Lovers was kind of putting your fingerprints on the “mood record,” which I interpret as a sound traditionally riddled with schmaltz, the kind of record you’d find at a Goodwill next to old Artie Shaw albums. But I’m curious about that record. How does it fit into your oeuvre? What did you take from it creatively? Did your marriage to Yuka [Honda, of the band Cibo Matto] influence it at all?

This is a wide-ranging answer to a pretty broad question: Lovers is something I’ve been thinking about since the late ’80s. The influence of Yuka on it, I’d have to say has something to do with why it’s not a darker record over all. My original idea for the record was that it was going to be an update, and maybe a more honest look at what a mood music record is supposed to be about—setting the tone for a little nookie on the couch or whatever, something like that. Just something romantic in the ideal sense. I wanted to do something darker and I guess kinkier, right? To honor that, in a way, but also make it personal, or more honest and thorough. It’s sort of drawing on our impulses or playing off our emotions.

As time went on, the record got longer and longer. I played with the setlist for years. I’d sit on airplanes and play with the song list. It was the producer David Breskin who not only made it happen, but encouraged me to record everything. As did Michael Leonhart, once he got on board.

I’d been thinking about it forever, and it became extremely daunting. This is when I met Michael Leonard through Yuka. He was our neighbor at the time and someone with whom she’d collaborated. We really hit it off, sitting around his apartment on Fifth Avenue eating pizza and talking about various musical obsessions. He had Quincy Jones record covers on the wall, and we got him talking about Quincy Jones and Gary McFarland, then that led to Henry Mancini and Johnny Mandel, and pretty soon I started telling him about my Lovers idea. That’s when he said, “Please let me help you with this.”

I needed help, because I couldn’t start, I was too daunted. Particularly in areas where I wanted the record to refer to more traditional arranging, beautifully voiced. At one point I wanted to have an Ellington-ian moment, which is at the end of “You Noticed.” I wanted pieces of mine to sound orchestrated, and had no idea how to orchestrate my songs, for the most part. My ideas were more “out there,” you’d say, a little bit different.

“[T]he record sort of became gradually brighter in hue and more upbeat because, honestly, I’m just happier now than I was in the late ’80s.

The ones on the record that were always going to be on the record from the very beginning of thinking of it were “Cry, Want” by Jimmy Giuffre, where I wanted the marimba, the low bass flute, all of those things. But things like “The Bed We Made,” which I’d just written around the time of recording, I had no idea how to orchestrate! I just gave the lead sheet to Michael and he asked me questions about the rhythms, because I was inconsistent in my melodic assaying of the piece. Then he wrote this beautiful arrangement.

That’s right, there are five original compositions here. Are you literally inserting yourself into the canon?

Well, I don’t like to think about it that way so much. I want to think about it as me personalizing the concept. Because I had original pieces in mind from the very beginning, only one of which survived since the ’80s, which is called “Diaphanous.” It’s [with] “Introduction,” which I finally changed when Michael pinned me down on some of the chords.

It helps to have a buddy to self-edit.

If you’ve heard my records you know that I have no idea how to self-edit. They’re all too long.

The kind of music you play lends itself to a little bit of indulgence.

Oh, yeah. Well my whole life is pretty indulgent. But over time, not only did the album become longer, it became brighter in hue. The record is a series of songs that fit a concept in my mind, but also a series of homages to other people, particularly guitar players. So in “Beautiful Love,” my decision to do the solo section with Devin [Hoff] and Alex [Cline] in alternating 3/4 for one chorus, 4/4 for the next is a total Bill Evans homage. I like to work these little things in there, that whether or not people know, it doesn’t matter.

For me, it’s important, the way doing a Gábor Szabó piece was important—not to play like Gábor Szabó, but to refer to his legacy or do an Ambitious Lovers song that is not only a nod to Arto Lindsay, but also to Marc Ribot and Los Postizos. They were all neighbors in New York at the same time when Yuka was in the East Village, and so the record sort of became gradually brighter in hue and more upbeat because, honestly, I’m just happier now than I was in the late ’80s. [Laughs]

Right on. What’s your next 30-year gestating project?

I have one thing I have not realized, which I will do eventually, something no one wants to listen to. I want to do a nine- to 10-piece ensemble that’s subtly microtonal, involving mostly electro-acoustic strings played by multiple, various guitarists and violin and cello, but also prepared piano and a couple of woodwinds—clarinets and low flutes. It would have some indeterminate aspects, but also be very minimal and very much about sonic investigation. With any luck, I’d be able to compositionally notate it so it’s clear what I’m trying to communicate, and it would be very quiet. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for years, and believe me, nobody will buy it or want to hear it.

“I’ll still try to do gigs here and there, but I have to say, I feel defeated as far as trying to make enough money to pay the guys in the band, who are all adults, not 20-year-olds who can sleep on someone’s floor.”

What do you think about the “new music” community in New York, the incubator scenes where people are premiering those kind of weird, audacious pieces?

I’m not sure I know what’s going on here. I know a ton of incredible musicians doing incredible music, but it’s so hard to keep up. Not only are they prolific, but the releases tend to fly under the radar, even for me.

It’s performative stuff, mainly, because there are recordings, sure but groups used to tour to promote a record and now they make a record to justify a tour. Wilco’s a great example of a band that makes great records but really grew their following playing live, but most of these “new music” players seem to rely on that same performative context. 

Certainly with Wilco, we’re just going to tour no matter what. That’s how the band survives, that’s how we continue our work, because that’s the real work. So in Wilco’s case, it’s very luxurious—the band’s well known and respected enough that we can continue to tour and make records in a leisurely fashion, in terms of the record making. They get done pretty quickly.

But in terms of my stuff, I don’t even know how important making recordings is at this point. I’m just interested in the ideas of records because I grew up listening to records. And I’m not doing completely improvised music, so it’s nice if I have a piece of music that I’ve written and it’s recorded and produced in a lovely manner. Then I get to listen to it back. And I can’t go everywhere around the world, so at least people can hear what I’m up to without me having to go to their town.

I’d literally never be able to do that. I can’t afford to tour my own music in this country. I’ll still try to do gigs here and there, but I have to say, I feel defeated as far as trying to make enough money to pay the guys in the band, who are all adults, not 20-year-olds who can sleep on someone’s floor.

That’s a real challenge, and one I didn’t anticipate. I grew up listening to psychedelic rock and blues rock in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and then getting into jazz rock and jazz. People I admired were playing very lucrative gigs, and even Jazz FM radio was spewing out hit instrumental songs, not just straight-ahead music that was, at that point, rather historical. So imagine all the people with huge instrumental hits back then—not platinum, but really, like Grover Washington, Jr., Stanley Turrentine, Roy Ayers, really big records of instrumental music.

So that was my paradigm, as a young person, and boy, it changed. It changed in the ’80s, [when] a lot of those people were already playing much smaller gigs. One year I saw Oregon play at the Wilshire Ebel, and five years later they’re playing a place that held 150 people in Hollywood. That’s called Ronald Reagan.

But the pendulum swings back and forth. People become interested in one thing at one point, less interested, then interest is renewed. There are always people coming around for whom this is a new experience. I’m actually really encouraged by what I see in terms of younger musicians and younger listeners ferreting out new music from my growing up years that I never thought anyone would rediscover, music that was so underground and so small in terms of production and proliferation that I didn’t even know about it! But it’s out there, and it’s good stuff that people are embracing, they’re not just embracing anything.

“I’m so encouraged by what I see as a much less camped-out and defensive populous of musicians, where it’s much more open and embracing the idea of trying things – informality as opposed to some auteur-like or thorny, stand-offish attitude…”

There’s a dialogue now. I think of Dave Harrington and his sessions hosted by Chris Tart at Nublu. He’s not a technical player, but he does a good job at bringing people together and creating a space for new sounds and imporvisation to happen.

Yeah, Yuka’s played a bunch, she loves that stuff.

So the term incubator keeps coming up, and though it may ultimately be just a bunch of friends getting together to try new things, it’s important. But I hear you when you say that you identify more specific players than a specific scene or a club, maybe how it used to be.

As an older guy, as a guy who’s out on the road a lot, I have to be honest, when I come home the first thing I want to do is not go to a club. I love being home, but beyond that, I’m so encouraged by what I see as a much less camped-out and defensive populous of musicians, where it’s much more open and embracing the idea of trying things—informality as opposed to some auteur-like or thorny, stand-offish attitude, which existed not just in New York, but other places as well over the last couple decades. And I see this as a positive change.

I don’t know what to attribute it to, but I find it very encouraging, along with what I said already about people ferreting out new music from the past and embracing it just as much as some of the bold developments that we’re hearing moving forward now, in areas that are not necessarily stylistically definable. So I’m all about that. I’m a mutt person—I came up as a rock ‘n ‘roll kid, and very early on at age 16 I heard John Coltrane. It was the biggest reset button, but I didn’t know what it was resetting to! Because I had no point of reference for this change. So it was just this whole sort-of search in 1971, at a time that was extremely fertile in terms of change int the jazz world that I was just now finding out about.

Nels Cline. Nathan West

For people like Wayner Shorter and Joe Zawinul who created Weather Report, or Herbie Hancock and his Mwandishi band, almost a repudiation of swing…they refused to play any swing time, and obviously Miles was the sort-of figurehead that everything flows in and out of, to and from. For a young musician just learning about what a note is, I was just this guy that played with two fingers and tried to play like Duane Allman, you know? I started to use all my fingers when I watched Steve Howe’s hand [from Yes].

Wow, I didn’t realize how long your fingers are. You were made for this!

They’re long. You don’t need long fingers, but it helps to play some chords.

Maybe that disintegration of the musical auteurs is one of the few positive consequences of the digital age and ubiquitous festival culture. Contexts mingle, there’s less identity importance ascribed to genre niches.

It’s absolutely true, and I think a lot of this started to happen in the ’80s with The Knitting Factory, The Pyramid Club, whatever John Zorn was up to…but The Knitting Factory, for all its flaws as a business, ultimately did manage to bring together people from the so-called “No Wave” scene, from the so-called “Free Jazz” scene, and I don’t think they mingled all that much up until that point. The idea of booking and creating a haven for these types of musicians did change the landscape here, and I think that a lot of the defensiveness and distrust that existed before gradually broke down because of that. But I’m not from here, so don’t take my word for it.

“For me, this means that now people with deep musical ideas, harmonically, rhythmically, can also actually find voice in a popular language, and do it with great authenticity. Or great sincerity, I should say, because I don’t know what authenticity is.”

It did change my life in the sense that, when I was playing, it was considered “pop music” language on records by Tim Berne or Julius Hemphill, it was really not embraced by the writers at the time who were trying to “protect” the music from these influences and impurities, not realizing that the musicians themselves were asking that these things be included! By the time the ’80s came around and there was more cross-pollination, it was too late to protect the music from this confluence, this coalescence. For me, this was a good thing, because I have no purist instincts, in spite of my thinking at one point that I had to play straight-edge jazz for a living.

Jazz as a language in pop and urban contexts, like the work Terrace Martin‘s been doing with Kendrick Lamar out in L.A., has grown popular over the last few years. Considering jazz as a language for kids who aren’t paying two-drink minimum covers, what’s your take on that zeitgeist?

I can’t say that I can speak to every aspect of it, but as someone from Los Angeles, who loved so-called “jazz rock,” who’s married to somebody who is actually a huge Thundercat and Flying Lotus fan, as a huge Alice Coltrane fan…the idea that all of this has come together and created this new kind of fusion, in a way? What can be negative about this? I see no downside at all!

For Yuka, this is her dream come true. Not only is there this hip-hop element to it, but now there’s all this harmonic interest, amazing tones…it’s completely an idea that’s time had to happen. I don’t know. For me, this means that now people with deep musical ideas, harmonically, rhythmically, can also actually find voice in a popular language, and do it with great authenticity. Or great sincerity, I should say, because I don’t know what authenticity is. The fact that it’s coming out of Los Angeles is heartwarming to me, even though I’m not there anymore. I’ve only been here for seven years.

Alice Coltrane’s been blowing my mind lately through a new lens. I just wrote a piece on Indian devotional chanting, on kirtan music, and the idea that these words were translated to Hindi from Sanskrit, a language that was only available to the Brahmin, to the top caste of India, for the common people to appreciate. Because you could say the same thing about space jazz, too. Let’s take this heady philosophy and give it to the poor kids in Detroit who might not have the education to access this knowledge.

As an older perosn I have to say, what happened with space jazz has a lot to do with what you referred to earlier, with the zeitgeist. That stuff was in the air, the idea of mind expansion, the idea of esoteric spirituality, the idea of combining a personal search with a way for the community to come up, right? It was in the air because of culture, but it was also in the air because of agitation, because of protests.

And I grew up spending most of my adult life apologizing for Los Angeles to people who never spent any time there at all, maybe two or three weeks in Hollywood. So for Los Angeles, which definitely has an interesting and screwed up cultural history like most cities, to be emerging with this incredible music, it’s heartwarming and inspiring.

Nels Cline on Why Playing Jazz Has Never Been More Important