When I told Nels Cline that there had been moments during the two sets he’d just performed with his quartet that had made me burst out laughing with sheer pleasure, he said that it was how he’d often felt while playing with the band’s other guitarist, Julian Lage, over the past five or six years.
But it was more than just the interplay of Jazzmaster and Telecaster that made it a special night at the Vortex. This a real group, a four-way thing, in which the drummer, Tom Rainey, and the bassist, Jorge Roeder, play equally significant roles in determining the direction and dynamics of the music. And for an hour and a half they communicated the joy to be had when such a process works so well.
They played a number of the Cline compositions featured on their new album — Currents, Constellations (Blue Note) — including a luscious wandering ballad called “As Close As That”, the jaunty, jagged “Swing Ghost ’59” and the two-part “River Mouth”, which started with a limpid pastorale before moving into a kind of raga-rock drone, with some of the stunning unison two-guitar written parts which were a feature of the night. Other pieces included Carla Bley’s “Temporarily”, a Paul Motian medley of “Conception Vessel” and “The Owl of Cranston”, and John Abercrombie’s “Memoir”, originally a solo piece but here opening the evening in the form of a guitar duet.
I haven’t enjoyed hearing two guitars play off each other as much since Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were together in Television, or Bill Frisell and Ry Cooder recorded “Shenandoah” for the former’s Good Dog, Happy Man. All sorts of things were happening pretty much all the time, largely thanks to the set-up of the band, a structure devised with enthusiasm and imagination which Cline seems to put into all his projects. The music was full of surprises, things that made you gasp as well as laugh. The strength and drive of Roeder (replacing Scott Colley, who plays on the album) were a revelation, while Rainey is the only drummer who has ever reminded me of Han Bennink: swinging like the clappers but with enormous sensitivity and a deadpan wit.
A tremendous night all round, noisily appreciated by a packed house. A great album, too, for those who weren’t there.