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The Nels Cline Singers - Initiate

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Artist: The Nels Cline Singers

Album: Initiate

Label: Cryptogramophone

Review date: Apr. 13, 2010

Nels Cline is a musical nomad, but not a dilettante. Whether he’s playing de-habilitated country-rock with Carla Bozulich, acoustic brown rice jams with Eric Von Essen in Quartet Music, reimaginings of iconic 1960s jazz by John Coltrane and Andrew Hill, good vibrations with Thurston Moore, loft jazz with Julius Hemphill, or earnest rock with Mike Watt or Wilco, he has always brought his all. The Singers, an instrumental trio that includes drummer Scott Amendola and drummer Devin Hoff, is Cline’s outlet for good old-fashioned jazz-rock fusion in the spirit of Miles Davis c. 1969 and the Mahavishnu Orchestra c. 1973, upgraded by contemporary technology and record collector lore.

For better or worse — make that better and worse — he embraces fusion’s everything-on-one-plate aesthetic as lustily he does everything else. There’s the same sense that anything could show up in this music that Miles offered when he was jamming with sitar players and Brazilian instrument inventors and naming a tune after Willie Nelson; the same combination of aggression and sophistication, and the same flexing of monster chops. However, although the Singers never commit the cardinal sin of most fusion — a failure to rock — they are prey to another common pitfall; sometimes it’s hard to know why all those notes are flying around, except because the musicians want you to know that they can.

Initiate comes with a heft that reflects not only the music’s ambition, but also the elevated opportunities afforded members of successful rock bands; maybe you remember (or at least have heard of) the days when everyone in Yes got to do a solo record? It comprises two discs, one studio and the other live, each over an hour long and with no overlap in material. You’ve got special guests (Yuka Hanoda, Greg Saunier, John Dietrich, Satomi Matsuzak, and David Witham) with the time in a nice studio to overdub them, and high-profile engineer Ron St. Germain to make sure it all sounds muscular and well-coifed.

If that sounds like a bit much, it is. And if you’re one of the fusion faithful, you’re probably saying about now “but of course — it’s supposed to be over the top.” It’s true, the Singers’ too-muchness is quite idiomatically correct. In all this abundance, there’s plenty of heavy shredding, intricate contrapuntal maneuvers, Oval-like squishiness, fleet acoustics, hair-raising electrics, spaced-out sonics, two-minute miniatures and 10-minute extravaganzas, maniacally tight unison statements and free-fall thrashing.

There’s plenty to like — provided you like everything. Personally, I prefer Cline’s more focused efforts; the solo studio set Coward, the Hill tribute New Monastery, and his shimmery exchanges with Moore. While there are plenty of moments on Initiate when Cline and company wax limber and wiggy, there are others too rich, slick, or busy for my blood.

By Bill Meyer

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