Guitarist Nels Cline, 58, has been playing his instrument since he was 12, shape-shifting between work as a member of alt-rock band Wilco, jamming with punk icon Mike Watt and leading his own, eponymous jazz trios.
“It’s not switching gears,” Cline says of jumping between his many musical pursuits. “It’s all playing and attempting to not suck.”
Yes, even after earning spots on both Rolling Stone’s and Spin’s lists of the greatest guitarists of all time, Cline worries he might not be that good at his chosen profession.
“Free improvisation is probably one of the only things, if not the only thing, I feel confident doing,” says Cline, who just wrapped a tour playing spontaneously created music with avant-garde jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood.
“Music’s hard, man,” he says. “That’s just the way I look at it.”
That mentality comes across on “Macroscope,” his new album with the Nels Cline Singers, which challenges the listener with ever-changing sonic explorations.
With drummer Scott Amendola, bassist Trevor Dunn and guest musicians (such as Brazilian-born percussionist Cyro Baptista, who’s joining the band on tour), the Singers move between jammy prog rock, Brazilian-inspired rhythms, smooth jazz, garage rock and shrieking noise. The band’s boundless (and mostly wordless) sound is by design — or a lack of one.
“My records are all over the place. They always have been, and have been since I was in high school,” Cline says. “I’m not good with self-editing so my approach, if you can call it an approach, is to just throw everything out there and see what happens.”
There’s one thing in particular that Cline hopes happens after people hear “Macroscope’s” “Red Before Orange.”
“My fantasy is that it gets sampled by somebody — the groove at the beginning, or the chord progression — and it’s made it into a rap song,” Cline says. “They use Michael McDonald, they can use my stuff.”
Clocking in at over 11 minutes, the Nels Cline Singers’ freewheeling “Seven Zed Heaven,” from new album “Macroscope,” is an example of the kind of music guitarist Nels Cline might listen to. “It’s that combination of what sounds cool, what’s fun to play and features my comrades in a cool way,” Cline says, adding that the song heads in “a direction that might be sonically, shall we say, transporting.”
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