When he took the stage at Iridium in New York on June 16th, as this week's guest with Monday night regulars the Les Paul Trio, guitarist Nels Cline sported an "Ecstatic Peace!" sticker on his Fender Jazzmaster – a reference to Cline's long association with that record label's founder, Sonic Youth guitar icon Thurston Moore. On an evening usually reserved for technical decorum and jazz standards – parameters set by the late Les Paul when he reigned on guitar and that bandstand every Monday from 1995 until his death in 2009 (and before that, downtown at Fat Tuesday's) – Cline's fashion accessory was practically a live grenade, a suggestion that trouble could go off at any moment.
But Cline – officially of Wilco but a diverse, dynamic explorer in avant-rock and experimental music for three decades – was a good sport and respectful searcher in this night's second set. After the Trio, led by Paul's longtime confederate, guitarist Lou Pollo, ran briskly through Tin Pan Alley for a few numbers, Cline came on and jumped back in kind to Django Reinhardt's 1937 romp "Minor Swing," compressing the angular facility and often-violent tonality of his work in Wilco and the Nels Cline Singers (an instrumental unit) into nimble, melodic declaration and articulate improvising. Cline's reading of the tune and harmonic elbow room in the ballad "Glad to be Unhappy," from a 1960s LP by saxophonist Paul Desmond, was at once tender and decisive, evoking the guitarist on the original session, Jim Hall, while the closing number, Duke Ellington's "Caravan," was a good-natured-chops shootout with Pollo, in the manner of Paul's 1978 recording with Chet Atkins.
A Dash of Drone
Cline is no stranger to this kind of matured repertoire and concentrated expression. He is a featured player with Stanley Jordan and Bucky Pizzarelli on a 2012 all-star live album by the Les Paul Trio, A Jazz Salute to Les (Iridium Live), and has collaborated with jazzmen from inside and outside the tradition, including bassist Charlie Haden, guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Gregg Bendian. One of my favorite Cline albums is his 1999 outing with Bendian, a guitar-drums reimagining of John Coltrane's duet session, Interstellar Space.
In this setting, Cline took a chance to bend tradition his way, leaning into drone with a version of "Ida Lupino," written by Carla Bley and first recorded in 1964 on piano by her then-husband Paul Bley. Against the Les Paul Trio's low-register ripple and soft bursts of piano, Cline conjured a romantic poise charged with delicate suspense as he roamed through and around the melody, with subtle detonation of looping and effects. It was the kind of rapture you could easily imagine Cline bringing to a quiet passage at a Wilco gig.
It was also perfect for this room, where Paul is always resident in memory and ideal – a bow to the eternal giving in great composition and the infinite expression of an electric guitar in devoted hands.