The subjects of time and age were not on the agenda of Phoenix New Times’ interview with Nels Cline, the 63-year-old guitarist best known for his work with Wilco. These topics inadvertently came up, especially in regards to how he chooses his creative enterprises.
“I have a limited amount of time left on this planet and on my schedule. I’m not trying to start a lot of new projects,” he says over the phone from The Loft, the Chicago rehearsal space Wilco calls home.
Yet there is a quite a bit on the Los Angeles-based musician’s resume. Cline was asked to join the eclectic rock group in 2004 when he was 49 years old, a time, he says, when he was still struggling to pay rent despite making a name for himself collaborating with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Mike Watt of The Minutemen — Watt and Cline’s band Floored By Four is how Cline met his wife, Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto — and working with the alt-country band The Geraldine Fibbers.
Cline credits Wilco with opening him up to a whole new audience for his jazz and experimental work. He was already known in jazz circles as the leader of The Nels Cline Trio and The Nels Cline Singers. Most recently, he released the experimental jazz record Currents, Constellations with The Nels Cline 4 on the legendary jazz label Blue Note Records last year. The quartet will consist of guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Chris Lightcap, and drummer Tom Rainey when they perform at the Musical Instrument Museum Music Theater on Thursday, February 7.
Cline calls the group an extension of his 2014 album Room with the wunderkind Lage. In addition to the addition of a rhythm section, the intimate and modern Currents, Constellations strips away the volume and his use of pedals that Cline is known for, helping to reinvigorate his idea of what he can do with a guitar.
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“There was no question in my mind as to whether or not [my partnership with Lage] would work,” recalls Cline. “There was no ‘he’s so young’ or ‘he’s so good’ or ‘I’m so old’ or ‘I’m not that jazz-savvy.’ It was about this instant connection as improvisers that was completely spontaneous and satisfying.”
Guitarists become better with age, as evidenced by the number of accolades that have been bestowed upon Cline by the press in the last decade. This has also allowed him to be more daring in the projects he chooses for himself, but not in a way the compromises the traditions of jazz.
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“I did grow up with this idea of the guitarist as it exists in rock and roll,” Cline says. “As I became exposed to jazz, it is not really the predominant instrument in that vernacular … In a [genre of] music where improvisation and the individual voice is honored in a very specific way, bogarting the way guitar does in popular music is not going to be cool. As a listener and a player, I am not interested in taking up more space than somebody else.”
It took him three decades to see his idea for Lovers, his critically acclaimed 2016 double album of mood music, come to fruition. He says he was “reluctant, if not terrified” to do the project, but once he got the funding for the record, he had no choice. He shared his appreciation with his producer David Breskin in a humorous and macabre way.
“I wasn’t trying to be morbid,” Cline says with a laugh, “but I said, ‘Thank you so much. Now I can croak.’”