If Wilco's Nels Cline Couldn't Play Free Jazz, He'd Go Insane

Nels Cline and Julian Lage
Nels Cline and Julian Lage
Justin Camerer

Guitarists Julian Lage and Nels Cline lead wildly different musical lives. Lage operates primarily in a jazz realm, having collaborated with Jim Hall, Gary Burton, and Eric Harland.

Yet, he's also worked with mandolin master David Grisman and fiddle and bluegrass virtuoso Mark O'Conner, among others. Cline, when not fronting The Nels Cline Singers, is perhaps best known as a guitarist in Wilco. Together, however, the pair journey down an entirely esoteric musical path that meanders through rock, folk, country, and 1970s-esque soundtracks, all with crafty sensibility, improvisation, and dexterity.

For Cline, who recently released Room with Lage, the duo format is a nice break from the rock 'n' roll touring circus that is Wilco.

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"The real life feels more like when I go out and do this other kind of music and other styles of touring. It's what drives me and keeps me alive. It's survival and inspiration and very rewarding. It's life-sustaining," he says. "I've been playing music of this nature -- instrumental music with healthy doses of improvisation -- well before Wilco, but they enable me to continue doing it. Their whole attitude is that they know I need to do this to be who I am and to be happy. It's just a continuation of the work I've been doing for some 30-plus years."

Cline, who's had previous duo projects with the likes of Thurston Moore, Marc Ribot, and Elliott Sharp -- and was contemplating forming a drum-less chamber jazz ensemble -- thought Lage would be a great guitarist to recruit. Given the ease with which the two jammed together upon first meeting, Cline instead initiated Room.

"From the very first time Julian and I played anything together it was so automatically happening, so kind of telepathic and esthetically linked, we've never really looked back," Cline says. "There were no problems. It's one of the easiest things I've ever done, in terms of the instant degree of musical awareness and agreement, but also one of the most challenging because Julian is so remarkable that just trying to keep up with him is its own challenge."

Cline's partially finished songs were starting points for each musical exploration -- which is the proper term given that there were no limitations. Working from very general ideas, the pair set about turning each into completed numbers.

"It's an interesting dynamic," Cline says. "The reservoir we draw from is different, but similar enough that we can swim in the same water."

The album, which will be performed on this tour, steers a zigzag course across those waters.

"Abstract 12" is a tempest of sound and guitar oscillation, while "Amenette" develops into a new form of free jazz by channeling the single-line ideals of Ornette Coleman. "The Scent of Light" combines a handful of what Cline calls "squibs" -- lightning flashes of improvised musical snippets -- into a song encapsulating jazz, folk, and Morricone-esque soundtrack imagery.

"I wanted to play mostly improvised in a free and open and chromatic way, but direct the improvisation by setting parameters or by having very small written musical ideas that would suggest a way to improvise," Cline says. "We started calling these ideas squibs. We'd bring in little squibs rather than full songs."

On stage, those squibs can take on new shapes and ideas, all depending on the moment. In this way, every cut from the album is open to new meaning and new possibility.

"We're improvising and really listening to each other," Cline says. "It's just one of those things you can't really manufacture if it's not there." With this duo, it's there -- and then some.

Nels Cline and Julian Lage are scheduled to perform Sunday, January 18, at the Musical Instrument Museum.

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