JAZZ2K: Nels Cline & Julian Lage’s “Room”

Julian Lage and Nels Cline (photo: Justin Camerer)
Julian Lage and Nels Cline (photo: Justin Camerer)

Room (Mack Avenue)
Realse date: Tuesday, November 25

In a 2013 interview, Nels Cline described his collaboration with Julian Lage as “200 percent power.” A cursory listen to the soon-to-be-released Room might make one wonder if there are sound files on a laptop somewhere with the Wilco uber-guitarist and the prodigy-made-amazing creating mutual screaming feedback that only the hearing-damaged could love. But once you get tuned into the subtlety and harmony throughout this mesmerizing duo date from these two guitar wizards, you realize that Room is one of the more intense projects of 2014. And the guitar duo is slated to preview the new album in concert at The Egg in Albany at 7:30pm on Thursday night (November 20).

The album’s opening track “Abstract” seems pretty straightforward. Lage lays down a simple riff that Cline works off of with remarkable restraint. A quick bit of formation flying, and the exercise is repeated… except this time, it goes from an established relationship to dueling monologues in nothing flat. The relative cacophony threatens to send the piece careening off the road and into the ditch, but Lage and Cline back together on the nominal melody line relatively quickly – only there’s an obvious edge to both players that sounds like people speaking quietly through very clenched teeth. The piece resolves as if both of them would like to leave this subject behind, but the intrigue has been hatched: If this isn’t a wail-fest, then what is this?

Well, first, it’s an exercise in divine harmony. Now, that’s already there before a single note is played because of Cline & Lage’s respective axes – electric and electric/acoustic. The former brings a tight bright sound while the latter offers a broadness that expands the foundation and adds depth when the guitarists are countering each other, as they do beautifully throughout the disc. The closest parallel would be Jim Hall & Bill Frisell’s 2008 ArtistShare release Hemispheres. This comparison works both tonally and generationally: That set was also acoustic-meets-electric, and Hall was a mentor for Lage during his prodigy days. Room also pairs up guitarists from two disparate generations and backgrounds, and offers results that are just as beautiful and unique as anything Hall & Frisell laid down on their date.

Even on a simple mutual chord, like in the pulsing “Racy,” the resulting tone-set jumps out at you even faster then the wild scratching both guitarists launch at the end of the piece. There’s an undeniable ring to it that immediately gets your attention. That bell-like sound is crystal clear on the almost-loving “Whispers of Eve.” The simple mutual figure that introduces the driving “Odd End” both mesmerizes and energizes. When the choice is cacophony, as it on “The Scent of Light” and the staggering opening to “Blues, Too,” the dissonance that might be off-putting is offset by the intimacy of the overall proceedings, as well as a wonderful sense of narrative. “Scent” seems to suggest a creature prowling through the woods up to no good at all, looking to do its business before the morning comes, but the visuals are so interesting that you stay with the creature as it runs through the woods.

The closing piece “Calder” is inspired by an Alexander Calder mobile: Examples can be seen around the Empire State Plaza reflecting pool. A mobile is a form of kinetic art, which depends on motion for its effect. In short words, it’s all about which way the wind blows. In the world of Room, the wind blows in many and varied directions, but it doesn’t take a gale to create sounds and (Yes!) shapes that both delight and inspire. Nels Cline and Julian Lage may be separated by time and experience, but they come together here for a musical soundscape that – in the end – will be considered a brilliant achievement for both players.

Nels Cline & Julian Lage serve up an evening of adventurous guitar duets in concert at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre in Albany at 7:30pm on Thursday (November 20). Tickets are $24.

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