When it comes to trailblazing titans who’ve influenced and shaped the sonic otherworld of protean guitar hero Nels Cline, the list comprises heavy-hitters from across the musical spectrum. In a single conversation, Cline, an avant-garde jazz noisemaker and longtime Wilco member, credits the Byrds, the Yardbirds, John Scofield, the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Slint, Polvo, John McLaughlin, and Jim Hall with monumental influence over his own catalog: an ever-mushrooming oeuvre spanning more than three decades of freethinking guitarscapes and brutal improvisational shreddery.
Now, Cline is paying homage to a pair of guitar giants who proved life-changing in his music-making quest. On March 26, Cline will stroll from his Prospect Heights home to downtown Brooklyn experimental hub Roulette to participate in a tribute to the late, great jazz guitarist John Abercrombie, who passed way too soon in 2017 at age 72. As Cline tells it, Abercrombie was one of many guitarists and composers whose influence hovered over Lovers, Cline’s sprawling 2016 project encompassing orchestral jazz, mood music, and the American Songbook.
Last August, Premier Guitar published a lengthy Abercrombie appreciation penned by Cline. Now, in a showcase dubbed John Abercrombie: Timeless: A Tribute To His Life And Music, Cline will join an all-star cast, the bulk hailing from the storied label ECM, which Abercrombie called home for decades. Even Cline is an awe – and admittedly terrified – of the imposing luminaries with whom he’ll share the stage: Joey Baron, Marc Copland, Jack DeJohnette, Mark Feldman, Bill Frisell, Drew Gress, Marc Johnson, Joe Lovano, Thomas Morgan, Adam Nussbaum, John Scofield, Ralph Towner, Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine, Eliane Elias, and David Liebman.
Cline is taking advantage of Wilco’s year-long break, too. After many years of living in Manhattan, the guitarist and his life/creative partner, multi-instrumental composer/improviser and National Sawdust artist in residence Yuka Honda, have settled in Brooklyn, ingraining themselves into the community. As an advisory board member of Brooklyn Music School, Cline has focused on raising awareness for the institution. That will manifest on February 24 when he helps lead a tribute to guitar hero Jimi Hendrix, accompanied by bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Donald McKenzie, and students from the school.
Cline recently took a break from working on his latest massive project –The Call, a collaborative, multidisciplinary “secular mass” he’s creating with countertenor Ryland Angel, historian Ann Waltner, and a host of other composers, to be performed in Minneapolis in the fall of next year – to chat with National Sawdust Log about Abercrombie, Hendrix, and Cup, the electronica duo band he shares with Honda, which fittingly performs at National Sawdust on Valentine’s Day.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: The last time I interviewed you was way back in the early ’00s at Tonic before you and drummer Gregg Bendian performed Interstellar Space Revisited, your reimagining of John Coltane’s Interstellar Space. Now, you’re on the tribute circuit again with “John Abercrombie: Timeless: A Tribute To His Life And Music” happening at Roulette on March 26.
NELS CLINE: That was a period where I felt like I was the “King of the Tributes,” because I’d also been playing in Mark Isham’s In a Silent Way project, playing Miles Davis music, and also with Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser in Yo Miles! When Tony Williams died, I did a one-off tribute to the Lifetime repertoire with my brother Alex and the Los Angeles keyboard player Wayne Peet. Besides the fact that I’ve participated in a couple, maybe three, of Joel Harrison’s Alternative Guitar Summit tribute concerts, it’s a natural impulse in my case. I’m so happy to pay homage to, as best as I can, some of these guys – who are way over my head, but they’re my favorite artists – while they are still here and while they’re still alive, which is the best time. Then sometimes it’s when they’re gone, and everyone’s like, “whoa, shit. What a body of work. Let’s do our best to at least thank the person for his or her legacy.”
At what point did you get turned on to John Abercrombie’s music?
I actually was listening to John since a record by Barry Miles called Scatbird, which came out in the ’70s and may have been one of the first two or three recordings that John ever played on. At that time, he was the guy with the MXR fuzz and an MXR phase shifter with a Les Paul tone playing “John McLaughlin-y” stuff, so he was on my and my brother Alex’s radar at that point. We were just listening to John McLaughlin-y and he’s so electrifying, and John was kind of mild, so we were just checking him out. Then he ended up on all these ECM records that we were buying and listening to, and that’s when I met him. I met him through Ralph Towner, I suppose, in 1976. It was Ralph who really insisted that I pay more attention to John’s character as a player and his multifaceted, very personal approach to music making. Ralph just said “You really have to check John out more seriously.” This was right around the time they had started their duo and had released Sargasso Sea, not long after Ralph had given me his little talking to.
Had you gone to see to them in concert?
I used to go pretty much every time Ralph and John played Los Angeles. Ralph had been very nice to me when I introduced myself to him. I glommed on to him in 1974, so they would allow me backstage to chat. But I was such a neurotic idiot… I would lurk around and pretend I didn’t want to be noticed, but of course I did. John and Ralph were super-nice to me, and they had a little fun at my expense because I was such an easy target. They would make fun of me, but were really nice. Then over the years I started playing out and playing with some people that John and Ralph both recognized and appreciated, and they just treated me as an equal right away. So I would run into John periodically here and there, or go hear him when he would come to Los Angeles.
What originally struck you about John’s playing and technique?
Character, certainly. My brother and I used to go see the John Abercrombie Quartet quite a number of times at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California – they played there a lot. I remember going to see them one night when it was raining. It was opening night, which was the cheapest night, so we always went on Tuesday night. They were playing to maybe 20 people, 30 people max on this cold, dank night, all wearing leather jackets [laughs] and playing the music from, I believe, the second record primarily at that point. I also saw the trio with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson at the Palace Court in Hollywood.
John became rather ubiquitous, particularly in the ’70s on ECM, where he was kind of this session guy almost, adding so much personality but also subtle coloration and interpretation to all these different kinds of records. Like John Scofield, I feel like John [Abercrombie] is yet another guitar player whose writing is very under-appreciated, because everyone is more focused on the finger wiggling. And certainly both of them were capable finger wigglers, and ’Sco certainly still is – he’s one of the greats of all time, in my opinion. But both of them are great composers, and John’s compositions affected me really as much as his playing in the ’70s and ’80s and up to the present. I was going to say “brilliant composer” but that’s a horrendous cliché. It’s not that he’s a brilliant composer; it’s that he had a melodic and harmonic world that changed the way that I listened to music, the same way Ralph Towner’s did. Around the same time, they were working a lot of certain areas of harmonic language and improvisational interaction that just worked so well. It was so inspiring to me, and I’ve never really been the same.
Did you try to emulate John and Ralph’s playing when you were starting out?
I think what my brother and I were most taken with at that point was simply the trajectory of original music that had started with people being alive in the late ’60s like we were, and moving forward with an individual voice and compositional personality. I think more harmonically I was thinking along the lines of his writing, and still do, than trying to play John Abercrombie riffs. I tend to be a lot more, umm, hyper, and sometimes out-and-out violent when I play, and that’s definitely not John. John was very relaxed. He could still riff, but he had a certain kind of repose. And I think that comes from his appreciation of Jim Hall, of Bill Evans, and a certain kind of, shall we say, jazz that is really impressionistic and has a lot of space in it.
Were there records of John’s that you can point to as touchstones in your trajectory?
If you listen to Characters, which I think is a crucial, crucial record, or if you listen to this Jan Garbarek record called Eventyr – it’s just Abercrombie, Garbarek, and Naná Vasconcelos. There’s no bass, and it’s super-thin. John plays his electric mandolin that he used to play back then, he’s playing guitar, and the whole thing just feels so airy, and everybody has such respect for the sonic landscape. I don’t know what it is about that record, but I feel like it’s a great example of how John could be so much more than the hot shit guitar dude of the day, which he was kind of on Timeless and certainly other records. But his coloration of the material and his ability to improvise, sonically and freely, fits in so perfectly. That’s a huge influence on me.
So that record had a direct impact on you as a player?
Yeah, like Pictures by Jack DeJohnette. It has these tracks that are just John and Jack playing together, and almost nothing happens, but there’s this sonic vista that when they could just relax and let that be all it was going to be. Listening to John play standards is the other thing…
You’ve talked about how John was influential on your album, Lovers.
The reason I play “Beautiful Love” on Lovers is because of John. John loved to play that song in concert, the same way he loved to play “Alice in Wonderland.” That’s how I know that song. I’m not really a Disney guy, but listening to John play jazz compositions like “Beautiful Love” and “Alice in Wonderland” are some of my favorite aspects of his work. John used to say in concert that the song was originally on the soundtrack to The Mummy with Boris Karloff, which I never knew and nobody knew! He obviously thought this was highly amusing, and it is highly amusing. Once I investigated that, the introduction on Lovers was a retro old-timey intro to infer to the original version, but I would never have known about that had it not been for John. I’m not that kind of player; I’m not a jazz wizard. But he had a true aesthetic and a voice and a way to play that music that I really think is beautiful, and I always will.
The sound of Lovers exudes a vibe that brings to mind John’s airy, ambient aesthetic.
Most of the songs have a homage to somebody or more than one person. The guitar is a homage to certainly John, Gábor Szabó, Arto Lindsay, Marc Ribot, and Jim Hall. The list could go on.
Are there other records you’ve done that you could point to John having an influence on?
I don’t think any of it is intentional, but I had the volume pedal – probably more because of Robert Fripp and Steve Howe than because of John. But John was a big volume pedal guy for a minute there, very evident on the first Gateway record. I think if you hear most Gateway records, you can hear the influence on me. The fact that the first Gateway record has these kind of modal, sort of groovier, slightly smoking jams and then a beautiful free-form ballad on an acoustic guitar: that’s pretty much the template for every record I’ve done with a trio.
Around that time in the 1970’s when you were heavy into John’s records and going to see him live, were you also getting into the L.A. punk and hardcore scene? Were you listening to John and what SST Records as putting out at the same time?
[Laughs] Yeah! To me, it was one big blob. I did have a struggle with that in my personal, I guess, artistic life. There was a point in my life where I gave up in the ’80s, gave up playing music, because I was very conflicted with what I felt, which were conflicting impulses. Listening-wise, I never stopped listening to John, and my interest in the Minutemen and whatever punk rock means at this point never eradicated or in any way replaced my love of John and that kind of music. I wanted to do my own combination of it which is why I started my first Trio in 1989.
It took me a long time to start a band of my own; I only played in these kinds of democratic bands. If you listen to that trio, I wanted to do music that embodied, freely, my many diverse musical impulses. Basically, I started a trio that, if you listen to it now, you might be able to hear Gateway and other things about John’s music. You hear the John Scofield Trio with Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum, Pat Metheny Bright Size Life with Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses, and you hear King Crimson, and you hear Sonic Youth. That is what I wanted to bring together aesthetically for myself.
Then when a young man that I met years later heard that music, he asked me “Hey, have you heard this band Slint?” [Laughs] I’d never heard of Slint. So it became in the ’90s, Slint doing Spiderland, this beautiful confluence of guitar-based compositional aesthetic interest for me. I felt also with Polvo in the mix, I could somehow bridge these languages and do my personal interpretation, just do my thing inspired by these various entities. I was trying to find my own language, and a lot of it really has to do with harmony and swing. That’s where Abercrombie come into play and was there for me to draw upon and be inspired upon all those years.
When was the last time you saw John?
I saw him in Australia with the quartet with Joey [Baron] and Mark Feldman and Drew Gress at the jazz festival in Melbourne. That’s the last time I talked to John. We ran into each on the stairs outside our hotel. He had some typically self-effacing, darkly humorous, glib comments, and it was really fun. Maybe I saw him one more time after that at the Jim Hall tribute concert at the Blue Note. So that was the last time, when Julian Lage and I were there playing together to pay homage to Jim.
On to the other tribute show that you’re taking part in, taking place at Brooklyn Music School. How did you get involved with BMS?
The nice people at the Brooklyn Music School reached out to me to be a member of their advisory board. I’m certain it had something to do with them being aware that I was doing Lovers last summer at Prospect Park as part of Celebrate Brooklyn! I’ve been really wanting to be part of the community, and the people at BMS are really nice.
What does being on the advisory board entail?
Coming to meetings, but primarily creating more visibility for the school. The school is very cool [laughs]!
How did “A Jimi Hendrix Tribute” come about?
They said I could do a workshop that would lead to a concert, maybe a concert of somebody else’s music that would draw a lot of people to the concert, and create awareness and interest in the school. I was totally down with that. Well, BMS said, “You’re always talking about Jimi Hendrix as your first big inspiration to play guitar, so how about a Hendrix tribute?” Without thinking about it too long, I said “Sure!” I just thought it would be fun, and also it entails what we now refer to as the “School of Rock” aspect. There’s kids from the school with their teachers playing Hendrix songs for the first part of the show, and then I’m going to hold forth my objective to jam out, basically. And in spite of the fact I’m going to sing a little bit – I sing sometimes, but I’m not a singer singer – I invited a couple of special guests to sing and play and bail me out of the vocal requirements. But I am going to do Hendrix songs.
You have Trevor Dunn on bass, who plays with you in the Nels Cline Singers, and drummer Donald McKenzie along for the ride.
Both Brooklyn guys. Donald is a shredding, insane drummer and former teacher at the Brooklyn Music School, which I didn’t even know until I was hanging out there. I also have an old-school light show to blow the kid’s minds.
What do you recall about first hearing Hendrix?
When I was 12 years old, I heard “Manic Depression” off AM radio in Los Angeles – I believe it was KHJ that day, Saturday afternoon, my brother and I were sitting around the hi-fi. We knew that it was the Jimi Hendrix Experience record that we had eyed in the record and department stores. For weeks, we saved up our allowance and were thinking “Well, what does this really sound like?” It looks so cool, it looks like the coolest record ever. But what did it sound like? We bought records that looked cool before and been burned – not burned like they were terrible records, but burned because the two songs that we knew were great, then the rest were just filler. So we hesitated in the case of Are You Experienced? But upon hearing “Manic Depression” that afternoon, we were literally jumping up and down and freaking out. When Hendrix sings along with his ascending guitar riff into the guitar solo and the guitar solo happened, I was never the same person after that.
Were you playing guitar at 12 years of age?
I was messing around with it, and I wanted to play guitar. I was listening to the Byrds. They were my first inspiration: beautiful Los Angeles folk-rock sound. My brother and I were listening to a lot of psychedelic music by this time, and certainly I could say that equally inspiring in a weird, epic and mysterious was the introduction of the coda of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” That sound and the presence of that riff at that point was one the most magical things, along with the Yardbirds’ “Over Under Sideways Down,” “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” and “Little Games” – particularly “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” which felt like this voyage into the psychedelic unknown. We weren’t doing drugs at age 12! We just felt it was a physically and psychologically transformative experience and that is what informs pretty much my entire aesthetic. Everything else is about this crazy sensation, and I could really thank Jimi Hendrix for taking me right over the edge and inspiring me to play music for the rest of my life. I just thought at that moment, all I want to do is participate in this.
Are there certain Jimi songs you’re looking forward to shredding on?
Well, yeah, besides “Machine Gun,” we’re going to do “Third Stone from the Sun,” and I want to do “Jam Back at the House” a.k.a. “Beginnings,” but I need another guitar player. So hopefully one of my special guests will join on that. Then the emphasis will be safely be on the more instrumental ballads.
You wife, Yuka C. Honda, is an Artist in Residence at National Sawdust, and you’ll be performing with her there in your duo project, Cup. I read that you’ll be coming out with an album later this year.
It’s recorded. We just need to finish it then figure out how to put it out. There’s more than we need right now, so we need to focus, edit, and mix.
I’m looking forward to hearing it.
Me, too! I love it. It’s really cool. I’m nervous about the singing thing, though. I sing. I have been singing on duo gigs with Yuka now for, jeez, seven years. But it’s a rare event, and most people have been either turning a blind eye or politely silenced about it.
Is Cup more song-oriented, free-improvisational, or a little bit of both?
There’s a lot of electronica, kind of grooving soundscapes, there’s some improvisations, and there’s songs. It endeavors to be a warmly embracing and potentially party-starting record. We’ll see. It’s not really a party-starting record, but it’ll have some ambient grooves on it with some hypnotic, hopefully beautiful soundscapes. It is what is it is: it’s our language, our shared language, come to fruition.
Nels Cline and Yuka Honda perform together as Cup at National Sawdust on Feb. 14 at 8pm; nationalsawdust.org
Brad Cohan is a music journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in the Observer, the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Vice, and Noisey.