Though he appeared unbilled at the talent-packed concert celebrating drummer Scott Amendola's 50th birthday last week, Nels Cline was hard to miss on the crowded Freight & Salvage stage. Looking lean and lanky as ever, he swayed next to Berkeley guitarist John Schott and LA's Jeff Parker, picking his spots to play a power chord or bend a note like a contortionist. The cameo served as both a tantalizing scene setter for the Bay Area debut of his new band The Nels Cline 4 at the Freight on Sunday, Feb. 17, and a potent reminder of his deep and abiding East Bay ties.
While a generation of music fans recognize him as the unpredictable lead guitarist for Wilco, a spot he's held since 2004, Cline was already a widely revered player known for dauntlessly traversing various musical subcultures across the Southland and far beyond. For reasons that aren't entirely apparent, the experimental LA scene that nurtured him and his twin brother, percussionist Alex Cline, has evolved mostly in isolation from the Bay Area, with precious few players maintaining a presence in both regions.
One of the rare exceptions, Cline established a firm foothold here two decades ago when Amendola started hiring him to perform regularly in the late 1990s during the first high-tech bubble. "There was so much work up there, and I had nothing going on in LA," recalled Cline, 63, while waiting out the polar vortex in Wilco's Chicago rehearsal space. "I was broke, and Scott kept bringing me up for gigs."
He connected with bassist Devon Hoff through Amendola, and they became the volatile instrumental trio The Nels Cline Singers. Joining Amendola's band, Cline often engaged in coruscating intertwined solos with violinist Jenny Scheinman and Jeff Parker. He collaborated with ROVA Saxophone Quartet, recording on the group's torrential Electric Ascension project inspired by John Coltrane's free jazz landmark, and continues to work with ROVA saxophonist Larry Ochs in a power trio with drummer Gerald Cleaver.
The Nels Cline 4 is built on another relationship with a Bay Area-raised musician, Santa Rosa native Julian Lage, though they got to know each other after moving to New York City. Part of an extended guitar communion, they were both regulars at monthly luncheons organized around the jazz guitar legend Jim Hall (1930-2013), events that "were really designed to get him out of his house," said Lage, 31.
A prodigy who was playing with seasoned professionals before he was a teenager, Lage was looking for a new musical community when he started hanging out and playing casually with Cline. Before long, "I felt like I found my people," he said. "There was a sense of freedom with a lot of humor that in other circles I'd felt I had to rein in. Nels and I started playing these small pieces, he calls them squibs, that are very changeable. That freedom calls on everything I've worked for all my life. It represented a big shift for me."
They documented the protean duo on 2014's Room (Mack Avenue), a singular album marked by open spaces, palpable listening, and rug-pulling feints. It wasn't long before they started thinking about what it would be like to add a rhythm section. "From the very beginning I told Julian I want to try Tom Rainey," said Cline, referring to a drummer who's been part of several remarkable groups, including pianist Fred Hersch's great 1990s trio and numerous projects with alto saxophonist Tim Berne. "He's not only done the jazzy jazz thing with incredible eloquence ad ecstasy, he's committed to free improv. He's my fucking ace in the hole."
When the time came to record The Nels Cline 4 album Currents, Constellations (Blue Note), one of last year's most consistently enthralling albums, the guitarists were joined by Rainey and the superlative New York bassist Scott Colley (heard recently in the Bay Area with Joshua Redman's Still Dreaming). He couldn't make the West Coast tour, so Cline recruited Peruvian-born Jorge Roeder, a longtime Lage collaborator.
"Jorge was the guy I wanted in the quartet originally," Cline said, while making it clear that's no dis of Colley. After meeting him through Lage, he invited Roeder to play a 2016 gig at The Stone exploring a semi-improvised song cycle featuring vocalist Ryland Angel and Björk harpist Zeena Parkins based on the love letters from John Cage to Merce Cunningham.
"Jorge's just an incredible guy, like Julian," Cline said. But cutting against expectations, the rock star guitarist is the one with the time to tour. "I can barely ever schedule this band because of Julian's calendar. And right when I booked this one, Jorge got a major ECM tour with pianist Shai Maestro, so Chris Lightcap is doing three of the dates. My schedule's actually pretty open because Wilco's been off for the past year."
In other words, catch 'em when you can, because there's no telling when the Nels Cline 4 will be back this way, no matter how connected the bandleader is to the East Bay.