Guitar shredders are a dime a dozen. A quick perusal of Instagram reveals a seemingly endless string of bedroom guitarists who can unleash a firehose spray of pentatonic scales that sound like angry hornets. But a guitarist who lends his fretboard talents in service of the song is a rare breed. In this regard, Nels Cline is in a league of his own—as Wilco’s hired-gun lead guitarist and as the captain of his own musical vessel, The Nels Cline Singers.
Share the Wealth, the latest from The Nels Cline Singers, was recorded over the course of just two days. The sprawling, improvisational jams on the album blend the sounds of rock, jazz, fusion and some musical elements that defy categorization.
As with most modern, electric jazz, the single biggest ingredient in Share the Wealth‘s stew is the music Miles Davis made in the ’70s. The long improvisational jams have that seasick swagger endemic to Davis’ groundbreaking work with Herbie Hancock and others. The album’s horns are blown by the strange musical bird known as Skerik, who’s pioneering style of “saxophonics” has graced the albums of everyone from Peter Buck’s Tuatara project to Les Claypool’s Fancy Band, to the grunge band Mad Season.
On the album’s first single, “Beam/Spiral,” Skerik creates a sense of mystery with a fluttering string of notes. Keyboardist Brian Marsella—who’s worked with both skronk legend John Zorn as well as the genre-jumping Matisyahu—applies a sparse electric keyboard to provide additional harmonic framework for the jam. The song’s intro serves as a launch pad, gently roiling with mellowness before Nels Cline and longtime collaborator, drummer Scott Amendola, discover a pulsing rhythm that propels the jam through the remainder of its nearly nine-minute runtime.
In other places, the album sounds like Davis’ work with legendary orchestrator Gil Evans. The sparsely somnambulant “Nightstand” reveals its velvety layers through saxophone and guitar like a blooming evening primrose. “Headdress” develops Cline’s tasty guitar noodling over a growing bed of synth pads and heavily reverb-laden drum hits. Additional ear candy on “Headdress” emanates from the weird instruments of Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista.
Share the Wealth also gets deeply weird, as both “Princess Phone” and “Stump the Panel” are replete with the kinds of electronic bleeps, bloops and kerchungs—that Miles Davis borrowed from German sound experimenter Karlheinz Stockhausen. “Pleather Patrol” features an upbeat funk peppered with clanging weirdness in addition to the tasty Rhode piano work from Marsella.
Share the Wealth documents what can happen when great musicians get together to jam. Nels Cline’s initial vision for the album involved editing together small snippets of the epic jams that took place over the course of two days at The Bunker studio in Brooklyn. But instead, the musical improvisations took on a life of their own as these seasoned and schooled musical veterans coaxed one another into different musical moods and locations.
Sometimes when you get a bunch of virtuosos together you end up with a pissing match where each musician tries to one-up the others with crazy chords or overly complex polyrhythms (Dream Theater, I am looking in your general direction). However the musicians on Share the Wealth avoid this magnet tarpit trap by checking their egos at the door and playing to suit the songs rather than to impress each other. As a result, the latest from The Nels Cline Singers is a rare opportunity to hear musicians in dialog, listening to each other and enjoying the conversation.