The Nels Cline Singers - Draw Breath
Draw Breath is the third CD from The Nels Cline Singers, Cline’s working trio of bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola. While the name should be taken ironically, the three have developed over the last several years to the point where they can conjure a virtual chorus of voices from their respective instruments.
Since the late ‘70s, Nels Cline has been an integral part of the west coast experimental music scene, nimbly bridging jazz and rock-based sounds and working with a panoply of artists from Julius Hemphill, Charlie Haden and ROVA, to Carla Bozulich, Thurston Moore and Mike Watt. His latest release was “New Monastery,” a prescient tribute to oft-overlooked pianist Andrew Hill, who passed away in April at the age of 75.
Since the mid-90s, Cline has been the lead guitarist for Wilco, and has found a new improv partner in that group’s drummer Glenn Kotche, who appears on Draw Breath’s epic noise-into-lushness closer, “Squirrel of God.”
Wilco’s twang-rock influence arises once or twice on the new CD, but then again, so does virtually every other influence upon which Cline draws. The incisive power chords of “Confection” displays how effective a rock band the Singers can be, even if the title subjects their pop leanings to some knowing self-mockery. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about Hoff’s elegant bowed-bass solo, or Cline’s delicate acoustic playing on the lyrical, folksy “The Angels of Angels” and the gentle,introspective pair of “Recognize” ballads.
Recently named a “Guitar God” by Rolling Stone magazine, Cline is renowned as a mind-blowing shredder (Jazz Times has referred to him as “The world’s most dangerous guitarist”), but Draw Breath opens with a marvel of self-control, the seven-minute “Caved-In Heart Blues”. As the title suggests, the tune is firmly rooted in the blues, but the dirge-like pace and Amendola’s tolling bass drums suggest that this sufferer has moved beyond “my-baby-left-me” and “I’m-stuck-here-in-prison” to a much, much darker place.
The pent-up energy suppressed in that brooding beginning erupts on “Attempted,” as Cline’s wiry, ragged spasms are parried by Amendola’s relentless battery, while Hoff fluidly slaloms through the spaces between before setting off on his own sure-footed solo, accompanied only by occasional car-crash interjections from his partners. Equally breathless is “Mixed Message”, with Cline’s clean, cascading lines sounding something like Pat Metheny caught in an avalanche.
The album’s centerpiece, though, may be the 16-minute “An Evening At Pops’.” Pop is actually drummer Scott Amendola, and the tune is a not to his recently having become a father. “Evening At Pops’ unleashes a lengthy, dense torrent of noise, with each member of the trio overcoming and giving ground to the others in turn, eventually gives way to a momumentally heavy slab of riffing, besting The Melvins at their own game. This all decays into a burbling swirl of electronics. After all that, the relatively tender double shot of “Angel of Angels” and “Recognize I” comes as quite a relief.
David Witham - Spinning the Circle
As the breakbeat electronica of “The Neon” cedes to the gentle balladry of “Who Knows”, casual listeners may find themselves glancing back at their CD covers to ensure that Spinning the Circle is not in fact a compilation. But be reassured, the album is in fact the work of one artist, and the surprises don’t stop there.
One glance at David Witham’s resume would also quell those misgivings, with the breadth of experience on display virtually ensuring such a diverse approach. For over 20 years, Witham has been George Benson’s keyboardist and music director, while also working with a roster of artists including Ernie Watts, Chick Corea, Michael and Randy Brecker, Jose Feliciano, k.d. lang, and Chaka Khan. He was also a member (and producer) of the acid jazz/spoken word group Bluezeum and producer of the Long Beach community television series “Portable Universe”, which showcases a broad array of musicians and artists.
Cline and Amendola are both on board for Witham’s date, as are pedal steel guitarist (and frequent Bill Frisell collaborator) Greg Leisz, bassist Jay Anderson, woodwind player Jon Crosse, and percussionist Luis Conte.
Leisz’ pedal steel is integral to “N.O. Rising”, an enticing tribute to post-Katrina uplift that implies the New Orleans influence without becoming pastiche, and then draws on the influence of sacred steel bands for Leisz’ plaintive solo.
Bassist Jay Anderson’s tune “Momentuum” takes a left turn into more familiar territory, a sparse, improvisatory venture, with plenty of interactive give-and-take among the ensemble hung upon the hook of Witham’s keening melody on the accordion.
Conte’s Latin-inflected beat drives “The Circle,” and he and Amendola unite for what is almost a four-handed percussion solo; the heavy beat fades, though, for what is one of Witham’s most graceful solos, almost a dance between the pianist and bassist Anderson. Witham and Anderson have been friends and colleagues over 25 years, and their musical relationship continues to grow and develop.
The spotlight truly focuses on the leader during “Light and Life”, however. Paring the ensemble down to a trio with Amendola and Anderson, Witham conjures an intimate piece of personal revelation. With evocative prompting from his rhythm section compatriots, Witham creates great drama without ever sacrificing the whispering quality of his sensual playing.
“Afrobeat” takes nearly four minutes to deliver on its title, utilizing a lengthy electronics-heavy intro to fuse a hybrid of tradition and innovation. A harsh electro-acoustic fusion accelerates into a few moments of avant-chamber playing before Anderson intrudes with a grooving bassline, soon accompanied by Conte’s percussion. Crosse carries the sharp corners of the opening minutes into the danceable rhythms, however, with an angular soprano sax solo. After another brief chamber interlude, Witham takes an electric solo that recalls Miles’ 70s bands with Airto Moreira and Chick Corea.
The album ends on an almost wistful note, with Leisz returning to add a nostalgic gloss over the loping “Con Quien.” After such a wide-ranging group of songs, it’s almost like looking back with equal parts longing and exhaustion after a long but pleasurable journey, Witham being an ideal tour guide.