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Guitarist Nels Cline Connects His New Album to Jazz History, With a Little Help From Carla Bley

Nathan West
The Nels Cline 4, left to right: Scott Colley, Cline, Tom Rainey, Julian Lage

The Nels Cline 4, led by its namesake guitarist and composer, occupies a thoughtful present tense. All but one song on the band’s excellent album Currents, Constellations, out today on Blue Note, bears Cline’s credit as a composer. The lone exception is “Temporarily,” a tune by Carla Bley.

In an exclusive video premiere below, find footage of the band — Cline, guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Scott Colley, drummer Tom Rainey — performing that song in the recording studio.

There’s a meaningful pedigree to the song, worth delineating here. “Temporarily” was first recorded in 1961 by the Jimmy Giuffre 3, which had Giuffre on clarinet, Steve Swallow on bass and Paul Bley on piano. Carla, who composed a handful of pieces for the group, was married to Paul at the time.

“Temporarily” has a jaunty, almost ditty-like melody; it’s the sort of tune you might find yourself whistling while you amble down the street. On https://youtu.be/L_Mh5L_jUkk">the original recording, the relaxed cadence is what you notice first. Linger a while, and you also hear how the trio methodically abstracts the theme — an audacious gesture for 1961, and a big part of the reason musicians still hold this group in such high regard.

Cline is obviously one such admirer. Among his towering heroes on guitar is Jim Hall, who played in a later, warmer edition of the Jimmy Giuffre 3. The version of “Temporarily” that appears on Currents, Constellations can be understood as a love letter — to Giuffre, to Carla Bley, even by extension to Hall.

Lage, after all, is another acolyte of the Jim Hall school, and played in one of the master’s last bands with Colley. In this arrangement of the tune, the melody passes from one set of hands to another, with Cline taking the lead one moment, and Colley the next. (Listen, too, for how neatly Lage evokes the chordal language of Paul Bley.)  When the group pulls free of the tempo, about two minutes in, it’s easy to identify a fond callback to the Jimmy Giuffre 3.

Cline has the creative resources to make that jazz-historical allusion while keeping the music rooted in his own time. This is a performance of insinuative grace and unhurried command, and it’s presented in the spirit of an offering.

Currents, Constellations is available today on Blue Note Records. The Nels Cline 4 performs on Monday at (Le) Poisson Rouge, followed by a European tour.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.