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The Nels Cline Singers - Instrumentals

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Artist: The Nels Cline Singers

Album: Instrumentals

Label: Cryptogramophone

Review date: Jun. 4, 2002

At a time when jazz record executives are facing ever-diminishing market shares and responding with increasingly polished, predictable and, often, lifeless recordings, it is tempting to think that music like that captured on the Nels Cline Singers’ debut release, Instrumentals, might just save us all. But we should probably know to expect nothing less from a trio comprised of the ceaselessly inventive Cline on guitar, über-talented bassist Devin Hoff, and, on drums Scott Amendola, the person about whom critic Derk Richardson accurately stated, “If Amendola didn’t exist, the San Francisco music scene would have to invent him.”

Cline has spent most of his musical life in the glare of Southern California, composing for and performing in a list of ensembles and settings too numerous to attempt to catalog at any length. One of his earliest co-conspirators, the bassist and composer Eric Von Essen, proved to be among his most fruitful collaborations. Von Essen and Cline worked together in various settings from 1977 until Von Essen’s too-early death in 1997. The longest-lived and most productive project that this duo would give rise to was the avant-chamber-jazz group Quartet Music (rounded out with Cline-brother Alex on percussion and Jeff Gauthier on violin), which broke new ground in acoustic jazz as well as performing several of Von Essen’s compositions with the Milwaukee Symphony. Cline credits his work with Von Essen as being some of his most instructive, and the late composer’s influence can be seen clearly in Instrumentals' expansive compositional palette, which ranges from free-jazz to punk rock to the liltingly lyrical, sometimes all in the same track.

The album’s opener, “A Mug Like Mine,” gives a good indication of the shape of things to come, with Cline’s outlined arpeggios emerging periodically out of a heavy, free-time stew concocted by Hoff and Amendola. Cline seems like about four or five different guitarists throughout the course of the album, his only consistent tendency at some points seems to be his ability to do that which is least expected. A good example of this range is “Suspended Head,” which opens with a quiet, introspective guitar line, builds to a grungy climax and ends back where it began with Cline’s somber melody.

Hoff liberates bowed contrabass from its conventional roll strictly in balladry, using it to melodically outline the structures implied by Cline’s chording in “Harbor Child,” and forcing a low growl from it on the blues-on-which-it-all-hangs-out, “Lowered Boom.” He is equally nimble when he sets down the bow; when he and Scott Amendola swing, they don’t mess around. And Amendola is, well, Amendola, which is saying a whole lot. His shockingly precise but overwhelming energy keeps the album comfortably close to bursting at the seams. A delicious note of madness is added by his experimentation with live loops, effects, and processed percussion sounds, most notably on the penultimate, suitably titled “Blood Drawing.”

By Bruce Wallace

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