Artwork Features Photographs of The Large Hadron Collider at CERN (Switzerland), The Largest Machine in the World
Album Produced by David Breskin (Ronald Shannon Jackson, Bill Frisell, John Zorn)
Engineered by Ron Saint Germain (Bad Brains, Ornette Coleman, Soundgarden)
The concept of duality has been a defining characteristic of guitarist Nels Cline since he first emerged in the late 1970s. On one hand, there’s the harmonically sophisticated, compositionally rich Nels Cline who contributed to jazz recordings by everyone from Tim Berne to Vinny Golia to Julius Hemphill. On the other, there’s the more extreme, visceral Nels Cline, who brought unbridled power and reckless abandon to the post-punk, alternative rock of Mike Watt, Thurston Moore, and The Geraldine Fibbers. Thirty years on, Cline continues to explore this dichotomy, whether it’s in his role as lead guitarist for famed rockers Wilco or with The Nels Cline Singers, his flagship group for the last ten years. Initiate, the Singers’ fourth release and Cline’s seventh as a leader for Cryptogramophone, approaches the concept of Yin and Yang with a series of firsts for both the group and its intrepid leader, slyly dubbed by JazzTimes as “The World’s Most Dangerous Guitarist.”
Initiate, in a beautifully designed, six-panel digipak featuring Simon Norfolk’s gorgeous photographs of the world’s largest machine (the Large Hadron Collider at CERN) is Cline’s first double album and, with its second disc culled from a September 2009 performance at Cafe du Nord in San Francisco, the Singers’ first live album.
The differences between the two discs are as stunning as they are revealingly demonstrative of the shared language that Cline, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola have built over the years. The studio disc, described by producer David Breskin (Ronald Shannon Jackson, Bill Frisell, John Zorn) as “technicolor, non-naturalistic, hyper-sensuous,” explores a variety of musical touchstones that have been an integral part of Cline’s DNA from the very beginning but are, in some ways, making their first overt appearances just now. The live disc, contrarily, is “stark, raw, a black-and-white movie,” — an incendiary ‘what you see is what you get’ document. Here the Singers perform material dating as far back as the episodic avant-bop of “Sunken Song” (from Cline’s 2000 Cryptogramophone debut, The Inkling) to the most recent “Thurston County” (from the guitarist’s 2009 solo album, Coward) which, with Hoff and Amendola in tow this time, turns into a far more jagged and fiery tribute to the guitarist’s occasional co-conspirator, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
Initiate is also the first Singers album not recorded and produced by the longstanding Crypto team of engineer Rich Breen and producer/label head Jeff Gauthier. Engineer Ron Saint Germain (Bad Brains, Ornette Coleman, Soundgarden) brings something different to the table, especially on the studio disc, where Cline indulges himself in a program as close to sheer beauty as any he’s ever done. The Singers go early-‘70s Miles on the groove-centric “Floored,” then revel in the delicately lush ambience of “You Noticed,” where Hoff delivers the most lyrical contrabass solo of his career. “King Queen,” with guest organist David Witham, cops an early-Santana vibe and Cline’s Afrobeat vernacular turns it into a vehicle for his most passionate, soaring guitar solo of the disc. “Divining” features Amendola’s mbira, wordless vocals (yet another first: the Singers sing) and Cline’s softly strummed guitar gradually assuming more grit and grist, while “Grow Closer” turns to Egberto Gismonti and the rainforests of Brazil, all refracted through the Singers’ unique prism.
This is not to suggest that the extremes so endemic to Cline and the Singers are missing from Initiate’s studio disc. Even the relentless build to a thundering climax on “Mercy (Procession),” reflecting Cline’s recent preoccupation with the passing of keyboardist and composer Joe Zawinul, starts with a gentle whisper. And Cline’s command of color — combined with Amendola’s excursions into the electronic and Hoff’s electric bass (another first) — has never been more comprehensive, bookending the disc with “Into It” and “Into It (You Turn),” two tracks of textural richness utterly new in the Singers’ repertoire.
The slamming live disc is not without its share of firsts, too. In addition to four tracks culled from The Inkling, Coward and the Singers’ heralded 2004 release, The Giant Pin, Cline contributes two new tunes. The head-banging pulse of “Raze” is an ear-shattering context for Cline to go places few guitarists are bold enough to go, while “Forge” revolves around a brooding electric arpeggio that builds with absolute inevitability: Amendola’s turbulent kit work, Hoff’s throbbing low end and Cline’s Hendrixian extremes turn it into the sonic equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider’s proton-smashing harnessing of 1.18 trillion electron volts.
Nor do the Singers deny their jazz roots, with an expanded version of The Giant Pin’s “Blues, Too” paying angular tribute to the great Jim Hall. It may only swing for a nanosecond but, with its largely acoustic bent, it’s the Yang to the Yin of “Raze,” further proof of this group’s encyclopedic range.
Cline’s choice of two covers for the live set are the last in this long series of firsts for the Singers on Initiate. Carla Bley’s “And Now the Queen” — a rarely heard track only recorded, in fact, by pianist Paul Bley — provides a soft, open-ended, pensive interlude after the assaulting triptych which begins the concert. And the lengthy closer (Zawinul’s Weather Report classic, “Boogie Woogie Waltz”) reveals Initiate’s Apollonian / Dionysian dichotomy in all its richness. As funky as the Singers have ever been, and undeniably reverent to Zawinul’s definitive voicings, Cline dispenses with any perceived guitaristic limitations, creating a personal tribute to the late keyboardist that’s reflective of Zawinul’s distinct orchestral sense.
Initiate is an album of inner and external reflection, a consolidation of the old, the new and the what may well be. What you have here is the definitive Nels Cline Singers set, one that decimates convention and plays off of — just as it unites — opposing forces, emotions, instincts: smashing dualities. 1.18 trillion electron volts and counting.