Nels Cline 4 — Currents, Constellations (Blue Note, 2018)
Guitarist Nels Cline has an earlier Blue Note release, Lovers, but Currents, Constellations feels like his first “official” Blue Note record. Maybe it’s because Lovers was such a specific project — mostly covers, many from the outer radii of jazz (Annette Peacock, Jimmy Giuffre) and at least one from another orbit entirely (Sonic Youth). Maybe it’s just the album artwork, which reminds me of Bobby Hutcherson’s final album, Enjoy the View.
Or maybe it’s because this is a working band, a quartet performing Cline originals. It’s also got a jazz feel — which has always been part of Cline’s playbook but usually gets alternated with other musical influences, as on the Nels Cline Singers albums.
That’s not to say Cline has gone traditional. His jazz comes with a spiky touch — glittering gems with pointy edges. Take “Imperfect 10,” the preview single that was available a few weeks ago. It’s relatable despite the time signature, and you can tell they had fun playing it — a good track to make a video out of.
The quartet pairs Cline with guitarist Julian Lage and a sharp rhythm section of Scott Colley (bass) and Tom Rainey (drums). The music includes nice flurries of adept guitar fretwork, but it isn’t a “guitar hero” album. Everything is done in service to the overall mood, which is often swingy and driven.
“Furtive” opens the album with a sprint, a rapid-fire Colley background as Rainey sets a snappy mood and both guitarists dive quickly into improvising mode. “Amenette” opens with a burst of ’60s-style progressive jazz that leads into some cool-handed soloing with a wide-open feel but still one foot in the jazz realm.
“Swing Ghost ’59” touches on western-style swing, a nod even further back than you’d expect but an understandable move given Cline’s broad palette. It breaks down into a darting group improv — so, the song starts with one of the album’s most “inside” moods and hits on its most “outside” moments.
“As Close As That” is a slow one, not quite a ballad. Its creeping 6/8 melody sprinkles moments of darkness but leads to a charming ascending-chord sequence. “River Mouth” starts out placid and pleasing, then leads into a springy and airy mood. For the jazz fan that has trouble with Cline’s pointy edges, this track would be a good place to start.