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One Track Mind: Nels Cline’s “Compulsion”

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Heavy metal is not the kind of music I get into that much, but combine it with avant garde jazz and it's often a whole 'nother story. Caspar Brotzmann, The Scorch Trio, parts of The Vandermark 5; these guys have a way of making two seemingly incompatible worlds collide but the two genres are probably closer in spirit than you might initially think. And sometimes an over-amplified guitar is applied to old whack jazz classics to wonderful effect, like Otomo Yoshihide's raucous rendition of Eric Dolphy's "Gazzelloni" from last year.

Nels Cline is certainly no stranger to conjuring up strange brews like this, either. He and Gregg Bendian even had the balls to cover John Coltrane's Interstellar Space in its entirety back in '99 andncline2004_3 while it was perhaps often more avant garde than metal, Cline's Sonny Sharrock freak outs added an edge that made this album stand apart from the original.

Now fast forward to the present, and we find Cline again tackling another intractable project, this time a collection of Andrew Hill compositions spanning across much of the pianist's 45 year plus career. Hill is an artist I've got some familiarity with and appreciation for but his melodies for some reason take longer for me to wrap my mind around than most avant garde composers. Maybe because his works often sounded more like compendiums than real songs. I've had Point Of Departure in my CD collection for some 15 years and still can't remember from memory how the basic themes of the songs go.

Similarly, Cline's Hill tribute New Monastery requires real intense listening to truly appreciate and more than a passing familiarity with the originals to know when one song in a medley ends and another begins. That's not necessarily a criticism, it's just to say this ain't no easy listening and it might not grab you on the first listen. But I'll leave an in-depth analysis of the entire album for someone else; the one track that did grab me right off was the last one: "Compulsion".

"Compulsion" originates from Hill's 1965 album of the same name. In Hill's hands the song was, um… well… admittedly I never heard Hill's version. But Cline must have turned that song on its head. His twin brother Alex begins with a 1960's-style rock back beat that pervades most of the song. About thirty seconds in the brief theme is stated by a pocket cornet and bass clarinet before Nels' cacophonous guitar muscles its way in like the coming of the Apocalypse, kicking off a wonderfully dissonant mix of Nels' amped up guitar with sounds of an accordion and the two horns battling for attention. And then like the Beatles' "Helter Skelter", the song comes in for a boisterous crash landing, only to take off again with Bobby Bradford's cornet backed by boisterous percussion and a more jazzy rhythm, followed by Ben Goldberg's bass clarinet. Subtlely, that rock backbeat returns, as does all the other players, until we're back to that stormy free for all from the first section. Suddenly, everyone quits playing except for the drums, the theme is stated once more, and then windup.

This isn't a song about amazing solos, or even creative composition (like I said, it's hard to discern melody from a typical Hill song, save for the short head). It's really more about Cline's ability to throw together an unconventional mixture of instruments and playing styles into something potent. Cranial jazz that you can headbang to… how cool is that?

Listen: Nels Cline "Compulsion"

"One Track Mind" is a weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too. Downloads are low quality rips available for only about a week.

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