Nels Cline Plays Yoshi’s in Oakland, CA

You never know who Nels Cline will be playing with next...

It might be Wilco, who handpicked him to join the band; it may be his wife, Carla Bozulich, with whom he collaborated on I’m Gonna Stop Killing, an album that also featured Willie Nelson; or it may be his brother, Alex Cline, who first introduced him to Eric Dolphy when they were kids. January 30, he was playing with some of his usual cohorts and some I’ve never seen him play with before. They were Bobby Bradford on cornet; Ben Goldberg on clarinets; Andrea Parkins on electric accordion; Devin Hoff on contrabass; and Scott Amendola on drums. I’ve seen him play with Hoff and Amendola before, but the others were new to me. Happily, they were all wonderful.

The bill for the show was Nels Cline Plays the Music of Andrew Hill. “Hmm… that’s strange. Andrew Hill is a well-known jazz pianist. How the hell is Cline going to pull this one off?” was the question on everyone’s mind. Well, silly them. Of course he’s going to do it with his incredible improv talents and the coordination of all the members of the band!

For those of you who don’t know, Andrew Hill was born in 1937 and started playing jazz when he was 13. He played with some of the greats: Miles Davis, Jackie McLean, and Roland Hill, for example. He was named composer of the year by the Jazz Journalist Associates in 2003 and Playboy’s Jazz Artist of the Year for 2006. Mostly, however, he is known for his Blue Note Records recordings, on which he played with greats such as Eric Dolphy, Woody Shaw, and Sam Rivers. However, he mostly likes to play by his own rules, as the headliner, which limits his public exposure. He also prefers avant-garde and modal jazz to classical. Nevertheless, he’s a jazz legend by all means, and an appropriate choice for Cline to choose an oeuvre from which to work.

And work it he and his band mates did. Without a piano in sight, they took the audience by storm as they interpreted some of Hill’s greatest hits, as well as his lesser-known works. Cline is a genius, by far the best guitarist I’ve ever seen or heard, and he was in pure form. He led the sextet through the songs, some arranged in suite form, so they were extra sweet! Cline can make noises with his guitar and foot pedals and hand pedals that I’ve never heard before, and he made them in spades. From grinding noise to subtle picking, he did it all, and wowed the crowd, some of whom had stayed from the first show. To them, as he opened the second set of the night, he said, “You’re going to hear some of the same songs you heard in the first set. But they’re never the same, are they?” Of course, he was referring to the nature of the improv and the breaking of barriers that is a Nels Cline show.

On percussion, Scott Amendola never looked happier as he played everything from drums to little toys, anything for an unusual sound. Smiling all the time, you could tell he was enjoying himself as usual. I’ve never seen a guy so totally in love with what he does. He exudes happiness playing. And it’s infectious – I smiled while listening not only to his percussive efforts, but also his looping ones. (I’m a big fan of looping these days.)

Andrea Parkins was superb on her weapon of choice, bringing the accordion to a level undiscovered by anyone else, and really showing her love for the music as well. She also never missed a beat in the session, playing fantastically well.

Goldberg and Bradford, poles apart in age, proved they could keep up with Cline, too. The elder, Bradford, who I presume is in his 60s, never wavered as he blew his cornet, lacking any sort of pretension I’ve seen many an older member of a band put on. Goldberg, quite young-looking, played his two clarinets with grace and ease. These brass instrument players really blew me away, that’s for sure.

Finally, Devin Hoff put his two cents in. Or rather, his heart. Playing his contrabass, he was having as much fun as Amendola. Often Cline looked to him to start a song, and a happier young man could not be found in those moments.

All the performers paid tribute to Andrew Hill in the most flattering way, being as avant-garde as Hill himself can be. It was truly a night to remember, the first time I’ve seen Cline in SF (I just moved here in April; I used to see him almost twice a month in LA, and I saw him once in Albuquerque). And Yoshi’s is a great venue: great sushi and beverages delivered to your table while you enjoy the show. And the acoustics are amazing, too. Definitely the premiere place to find great jazz in the SF area.

I almost forgot! One of the best things about seeing Nels Cline play is the merch table, at which you will find numerous choices and want to spend all your money. I decided, poverty-stricken though I may be, to purchase two CDs, one a Cline/Wally Shoup/Chris Corsano collaboration, the other, Crater, with jhno, on laptop, Amendola on percussion, Cline on guitar, Dave MacNab on guitar, Hoff on electric bass and Todd Sickafoose, also on electric bass. What great buys!

In all, paying tribute to Andrew Hill was an inspiring thing for this band to do – it made me buy a Hill CD that’s now taking a snug place in my CD changer.

- Diana Slampyak

Diana Slampyak is a regular contributor to Turntable & Blue Light.