Review: Nels Cline & Julian Lage – Room

The other day, when I was at an old clothing store in München, I bought an album. The reason for this is that this store has now, for many years, a very good jazz music department – maybe the best one here in München. I came to the department with nothing on my mind than to get a vinyl record.

Nels Cline & Julian Lage – Room caught my attention. I have been a fan of Cline’s material for quite some time, though mainly his older trio stuff. I had also listened to an interview recently where both had talked about how they met and although what they did together didn’t resonate with me that much, I decided to give the album a try, so to speak.

The album is a duo album, which means two electric (jazz) guitars. Now is that interesting – a duo with guitars, and guitars only? Obviously in this case, it wasn’t so much a conscious choice about orchestrating this, but rather two artists wanting to play together.

While both of them have a solid background in improvised music, they (especially Cline) are also experienced in writing material, and so all of the material on the album is credited to either of the performers (of the eight tracks, two are by Lage and six by Cline), with the arrangement being a joint effort in all cases.

The music is a collection of material that is what I’d call, in a very wide sense of the word, contemporary jazz. With the opening (very short at 82 seconds) Abstract 12, we start with something reminiscent of a more aggressive take on Corea’s Children’s Songs. Racy, the track that both appear to play most often, is a tour through hardbop, bluegrass, bluesrock and a lot along the way.

There’s Blues, Too, a very interesting take on the form of the blues which seamlessly moves between slowly developing two-voiced melodies and truly aggressive sections.

Rather than now listing each track, the beauty is really both artists bringing together their ideas as songwriters, improvisers and players to form something that somehow defies a strict categorization, but without begging to differ when we hear Seventies’ jazz fusion ballad sounds, or post-bop on two guitars, or voicings that remind us of the early roots of progressive rock.

My personal highlight (but maybe only because I had started listening to Cline during his Trio albums Sad and Chest) is Freesia/The Bond, a wonderful, slow and longish number where Cline’s skill as a composer and the magical interplay between these true guitarists shines the most.

Audio-engineering-wise, you might assume you can’t go wrong with just two electric guitars, but unfortunately some albums can disprove you on that – fortunately, not this one. With both artists panned hard left and right (which is a disadvantage for headphone listening), you get a clear, dynamic, and (often a problem with electric guitars) not too bright sound that sits well together, but still calls for the attentive listening a duo date deserves. Nice.

Talking about the package, the album comes as a nice quality vinyl package with transparent innersleeve, and has a download code for the album in digital format thrown in. And that may be my only point of real criticism: the download is MP3 high-quality VBR with incomplete metadata and cover art missing – not something I’d expect from a digital download in this age. But then again, I bought the vinyl, so I won’t complain about what is really a nice added bonus.

So what’s the verdict? While this is not one of the most important albums (or jazz albums, and maybe not even jazz guitar albums) of all time, this is a beautiful affair nonetheless: Cline’s writing obviously just shines even brighter in the duo format with Lage than it did to me in his other/earlier ensembles, and there is a wonderful balance between intelligent composition, witty improvisation and just mutual understanding between to outstanding musicians. Plus, it works well for really attentive listening as well as something to listen to while looking at your last vacation’s photos.

Highly recommended.

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