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The Inkling by Nels Cline

With an almost chameleon-like ability to merge into any musical context, one might wonder, of guitar wunderkind Nels Cline, what he does when left completely to his own designs. While his discography would indicate that it is only part of the answer, his 2000 Cryptogramophone release, The Inkling, certainly provides some insight. While structure has its place, a stronger emphasis on looser improvisational settings than on some of his sessions as Cryptogramophone guitarist-in-residence is clearly the order of the day.

With electric work that is, to some extent, informed by Derek Bailey, some of Cline’s acoustic guitar work feels like Ralph Towner on steroids. Still, as atonal as much of this music is, there is a certain delicacy of feel and subtlety of approach that makes even the most challenging passages well worth the effort.

Joining Cline on this session is contrabassist Mark Dresser, who has firmly established himself as another musical chameleon, working comfortably with artists as diverse as Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Ray Anderson and Joe Lovano. With extended technique pulling sounds out of the instrument that are completely unexpected, Dresser is the perfect foil for Cline; with feet in both the new music and contemporary improvised music worlds, Dresser has a warm tone that suits both his pizzicato work as well as his gorgeous Arco playing.

While drummer Billy Mintz has worked with artists as diverse as Charles Lloyd, Vinny Golia and Gloria Gaynor (yes, that Gloria Gaynor), his style leans most comfortably to free-improvisation within a partially-structured context, and it is exactly that which makes him the perfect drummer for this session. His opening solo to "Sunken Song" shows a disposition to melody as well as rhythm on the drum kit.

Harpist/accordionist/sampler Zeena Parkins is most often seen in the avant-garde world of John Zorn, Elliot Sharp, Myra Melford and Fred Frith; she is capable of creating sounds that can be hauntingly beautiful, or remote and alien; sometimes both at the same time. On "Spider Wisdom" which, along with "Queen of Angels" is the one of the most difficult pieces on the CD, she pulls odd textures out of her electric harp that commingle with Cline’s jagged sound to create a disturbing ambience.

Strange melodies abound; there is a certain elliptical nature to Cline’s improvisation and writing that sometimes blurs the line between the two, as on the extended piece, "Alstromeria."

The overall feel of The Inkling is that of chamber jazz, but taken to an extremely dark and foreboding place. As abstruse as Cline’s shimmering chordal passages are on "Moth Song," there is something strangely appealing about they way he incorporates just a touch of blues and Americana into the mix.

"Lullaby for Ian" closes the CD on an obliquely tender note. Parkins’ electric harp is nearly unrecognizable; Dresser’s bass harmonics are only definable because of the register that they occupy; and Mintz’s mallets cause swells and mild punctuations that do little to define any kind of rhythm; but still there is a gradual progression in the way that the piece develops.

The Inkling is a challenging work from a guitarist who, with a plethora of influences and a musical breadth that is difficult to match, still manages to sound like no other. As alien as the melodies, harmonies and textures are, it still somehow makes for strangely compelling listening. Kudos to Cryptogramophone for, once again, providing a forum for artists who look to not only work outside the box, but prefer to erase the lines completely.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Nels Cline
  • CD Title: The Inkling
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2000
  • Record Label: Cryptogramophone
  • Musicians: Nels Cline, Zeena Parkins, Mark Dresser, Billy Mintz
  • Rating: Four Stars
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