Guitar master-explorer NELS CLINE should need no introduction having held the guitar seat in Wilco for nearly nine years and counting. Combining breathtaking technique with an informed musical intelligence, the self-taught Cline displays a mastery of guitar expression that encompasses delicate lyricism, sonic abstractions, and skull-crunching flights of fancy, inspiring Jazz Times to call him "The World's Most Dangerous Guitarist." His recording and performing career - spanning jazz, rock, punk, and experimental - is well into its fourth decade, with over 130 recordings, including at least 30 for which he is leader. Born in Los Angeles in 1956, Cline has received many accolades including Rolling Stone anointing him as both one of 20 "new guitar gods" and one of the top 100 guitarists of all time.
Beyond Wilco, he leads The Nels Cline Singers (featuring Scott Amendola and bassist Trevor Dunn), Fig (a collaboration with Yuka Honda), and a new duo project with former child prodigy Julian Lage. Some of the musicians with whom he has performed and/or recorded include: Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Tim Berne, Jim Black, Yoko Ono, Alex Cline, Mike Watt, Carla Bozulich, Vinny Golia, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, Julius Hemphill, Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith, Lydia Lunch and Thurston Moore.
Following his Grammy-nominated 2009 debut Sounding Point, virtuoso guitarist Julian Lage returns with the evocative and finely wrought Gladwell - the second effort by his offbeat, eclectic group with cellist Aristides Rivas, percussionist Tupac Mantilla, bassist Jorge Roeder and saxophonist Dan Blake.
The album unfolds according to a fanciful and story-driven plan, as Lage explains: "We began playing with the idea of creating a story we could use as a guiding light in our writing process.... The result was the development of an imaginary and forgotten town known as Gladwell.... As a metaphor, Gladwell presented us with a clear architecture, to compose songs that evoke feelings of people and places we hold dear."
Sweeping, colorful and thrillingly executed, the album opens with "233 Butler," named for the Brooklyn street address of vintage instrument shop, Musurgia. Here and throughout, Lage showcases his group's highly developed rapport and varied, refreshing approach to orchestration, with originals pieces that bring to life the fictional sights and sounds of Gladwell: the train station ("Listening Walk"), the church ("Cocoon," featuring Blake on melodica - channeling sounds that could be likened to the artsy streets of Paris), the bazaar ("Iowa Taken"). "Some songs specifically identify with particular parts of the town," writes Lage, "while other pieces simply fit into the overall concept and musical direction. The intention of the music is to encourage the listener, at every turn, to take a step towards the unknown...."
As with Sounding Point, Gladwell reflects Lage's wide-ranging musical interests and talents, ranging from chamber music, American folk and bluegrass to latin, world, string-band tradition and modern jazz. The album also exhibits contemporary singer-songwriter aesthetics. "Margaret" was inspired by Lage's friend, singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy, with whom he has frequently shared the stage. "However," written by Dan Blake, "explores the rich synthesis of Afro-pop with Irish fiddle music along with American folk music," writes Lage.
Frequently one hears Lage deploy the cello and saxophone almost as a single, interconnected instrument. "Iowa Taken," meanwhile, allows Lage to shine in a trio setting with just bass and drums. The leader's fluid improvisations and rich, beautifully captured tone on electric and acoustic guitars anchor the music at every step, but the contributions of the band members are equally indispensable.
"Dan has a background in classical composition as well as improvisation," says Lage, "so he brings a sense of curiosity to the band that is deeply rooted in a variety of traditions. From Aristides we've learned a tremendous amount about how to play as a chamber-like ensemble, how to utilize dynamics and blending, and how to move and breathe as a unit. The sound of cello has opened our ears to the world that lives between classical music and jazz and it is amazing to witness how Aristides so uniquely marries the two. Tupac is like a conductor of energy, using his diverse palette of colors to shape and inform the music - his approach is never static, and it is exhilarating to share in his passion for uncovering new approaches. Jorge [who was the first member to join the band] has an incredible grounding force that enables the band to really take off in any direction at any point in time - I feel Jorge's presence as kind of like the narrator of a story, always keeping an eye on the bigger perspective while remaining an active participant at every turn."
Completing the picture on Gladwell are five pieces for solo guitar: a spontaneous rendition of "Autumn Leaves" recorded in an intimate "living room" setting, with four overhead microphones; "Freight Train," an old folk standard which becomes a springboard for Lage's vibrant and irreducibly personal statement; and three related pieces ("Point the Way," "Cathedral," "Listen Darkly") that find Lage in dialogue with himself, multi-tracking three parts on a vintage 1926 Martin 00-28 acoustic guitar.
Lage performed the three multi-tracked pieces in the presence of his Alexander Technique teacher, treating these recordings as a study in the relationship between kinesthetic awareness and improvisation. "When you hear these pieces, you're hearing a physical movement," he explains. "You're hearing an opening in me and the instrument that happens to be coming through a musical vehicle. I've been learning that you don't always have to broadcast what you're feeling when it comes to performing and recording - so long as you experience the moment as fully as possible, you can trust that the microphones will pick it all up.
Lage's recent trio appearances with fiddle master Mark O'Connor (also collaborating with the violinist's group, "Hot Swing") and bass giant John Patitucci have only strengthened the imprint of Americana and acoustic music on his work. In fact, Lage debuted on record at age 11 on Dawg Duos (1999), featuring David Grisman, Vassar Clements, Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck and more. "Those were my heroes," Lage marvels. (He went on to recruit Fleck for three tracks on Sounding Point.)
"Working with Mark O'Connor made me realize you can bring that simplicity and elegance of the guitar to the main stage," says Lage. "A lot of times growing up I felt the guitar had to be more like a saxophone or a piano - it was never really encouraged in jazz to use capos or open tuning, for instance. With Mark I felt I had permission to cultivate those sonic elements, and I discovered so much new music, like 'Freight Train' or old bluegrass tunes, or old-time music. It's so coupled with the design of the instrument. When you're playing that music on the guitar, it's as though all the lights are green."
Whether he's playing his Linda Manzer electric archtop guitar, writing with his rare 1934 R.A. Mango, which he used to compose "233 Butler" (Lage recorded the track on his Manzer), or the 1932 Gibson L-5 heard on the tension-filled "Telegram" (inspired by Garry Harrison's "Red Prairie Dawn"), Lage brings a purity of tone and consistency of attack to everything in his repertoire.
Hailed by All About Jazz as "a giant in the making," Lage grew up in California and was the subject of an Academy Award-nominated documentary, Jules at Eight. He gained pivotal early exposure as a protégé of legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton, recording and touring with Burton on two projects: Generations (2004) and Next Generation (2005). Other recent high-profile sideman appearances include Lucky To Be Me and Let It Come To You by longtime friend and close collaborator, pianist Taylor Eigsti. Having reunited with Gary Burton for live engagements beginning in 2010, Julian can also be heard this year as a member of the "New Gary Burton Quartet" on the forthcoming CD Common Ground (featuring Scott Colley and Antonio Sanchez).
With his previous Sounding Point, Lage arrived at a unique approach to composition and ensemble craft, a searching yet accessible sound that earned him his 2009 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. The music was "a major find," declared Time Out New York - "springy, intelligent chamber Americana that fits perfectly into a spectrum of Nonesuch-style players like Bill Frisell and Chris Thile's Punch Brothers." This new album represents another stage in that evolution, building on the proven strengths of and solidifying a unique identity for Lage's working band but continuing to open new doors and exploring new horizons. As Lage himself puts it: "Welcome to Gladwell."