Bill Frisell paused briefly as he sought the right words for his feelings about the electric guitar duos he’d been playing with Julian Lage at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thursday. He gave up quickly.
“Whatever this is,” he concluded with a sheepish shrug.
Frankly, he couldn’t have said it better.
Watching these two masters play together, it was as impossible to fully comprehend what they were doing, as much as it was impossible to comprehend that what they were doing was on just 12 strings, played by just four hands, the harmonic complexities of the combination often defying musical physics. At times it seemed even they were as mystified not just by what it was, but how it even could be. You could see it in their faces, especially on the face of Frisell, 68, whose sweetness and kindness matches his huge talents, marveling at what Lage, a veteran at just 31, was wringing from the neck of his Telecaster. Sometimes Frisell sat out and just watched his young partner, beaming with a broad grin.
For us in the audience it was a grin-fest as well. The adventurous virtuosity (a word that seems inadequate for this meshing of their artistry) was spiked at all times by both parties’ playfulness. Lage in particular would head off into dazzling displays that brought both squeals of astonishment and peals of delighted laughter, Frisell parrying with his own spritely, if more genteel, sparkle.
This was there no matter what they were playing, be it some 12-bar blues or idiosyncratic Monk (is there any other kind?). Threading it all together were various standards, including “All the Things You Are,” in homage to Jim Hall, whose spirit both of them hold, and an idyllic stroll through “Shenandoah,” something of a Frisell signature, here given a fresh skip from Lage’s shining sense of wonder.
Strolling, for that matter, makes a good descriptive for their approach to it all. They went on strolls together.
“We’re going to find our way to another song,” Lage said, introducing “Shenandoah.” (And now you’ve read nearly everything that they spoke in the course of the show).
Usually one of them would begin solo, sometimes after a chuckle-bringing Alphonse and Gaston moment(“You start.” “No, you start.” “No, please, YOU start.”). Improvising, they would move from dissonant (though never discordant) to melodic (though never mawkish) without a seeming care, as if those are just different aspects of the same thing. And in their loving care they are.
There was one frustration, though visual, not musical, as it was impossible (there’s that word again) to watch both players at once. Any time you’d look at one of their hands, the other was certain to do something incredible. So then you’d switch to him, and the other would do something unbelievable. For the whole show. Oh well, such is the price.
And you gotta love a duo that with the encore, after a transfixing 90 minutes of probing, prodding and teasing into new musical spaces of expression, sends the audience out humming the Snow White classic “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
A joy to whatever this is, indeed.
For a sense of what this is, here’s a video of a complete 2018 show by the pair:
Nels Cline stepped onto the stage of UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday, sporting a sheepish grin, following the 18 musicians who would accompany him this night. The lanky musician took a seat, strapped on and plugged in a Gibson hollow-body, the red of its hull more or less matching the color of the shirt he wore under a natty black suit. Conductor Michael Leonhart, center-stage and back to the audience, raised his arms as if suspending time for a second and then….
Elegant was a word heard several times a couple of hours later as the crowd filed out to the lobby post-concert.
Dazzled would be the word to describe the look on most of the filing-out faces.
And it was an evening of both elegance and dazzle, Cline and crew showcasing most of the music from “Lovers,” the sprawling and ambitious album of his released by jazz legacy label Blue Note last year, a mix of standards, originals, film music, modernisms and choice obscurities alike for, as he put it in one of his few times chatting to the audience, “a Saturday night concert almost entirely made of ballads” from, as he put it later, “a record about romance, sex, intimacy… the pulsation of life.” That, on the record, covers a pretty sweeping landscape, with interpretations of music from such seemingly disparate artists as Rogers and Hammerstein, Henry Mancini, jazz (and beyond) innovator Annette Peacock and even New York experimental rockers Sonic Youth. It was even more sweeping, yet of a clearly conceived piece, in this concert.
With Leonhart’s arrangements and Cline’s leadership taking on whole new layers of, well, life in this live presentation, it evoked on everything from Debussy to Hendrix, Messiaen to Mancini, Stravinsky to swing, all taking the road through Ellington and Evans (Gil and Bill). Cline’s own wide-ranging virtuosity nodded to Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Gabor Szabo, John Abercrombie and countless other jazz guitar masters. One of the several trumpet solos taken by Leonart had a Chet Baker feel to it, very fitting to the romance theme.
For some, the “Lovers” album and this, one of just a handful of live presentations planned at this time, is a wonderful, if curious, side-trip from his role in Wilco, which has made him an international rock-guitar hero. Funny thing, though. For a good number of those at Royce this night, it’s quite possible that the Wilco gig is seen as the side-trip, even after 13 years now in that band. Heck, it could be that some barely know that he’s in that group at all, or at least not are particularly familiar with its music.
A lot of folks at this show go much further back with him — some to the days in the ‘70s when he was working at the Rhino Records store just down the road here in Westwood while trying to make inroads in his musical ventures, some back to high school and earlier. (This writer first saw his talents on full display in the spring of 1975 when we were both freshman at Occidental College and he did a performance leading a forcefully dynamic electric jazz-rock trio that had his twin brother Alex on drums.) Sure, he’s lived in New York for a while now, but he’s still a hometown boy to the family and friends at the core of this crowd.
And many of their images of him are in a more jazz context, and that mostly on the explorational front of the form — his part in the semi-acoustic group Quartet Music, or booking “new music” nights at the old Alligator Lounge (highlights including evenings of furious guitar shred duets with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, strings beaten with kitchen implements and such) and various ongoing projects including his slyly named Nels Cline Singers instrumental ensemble.
Cline was clearly moved and grateful for this homecoming reception. His parents both went to UCLA (he wore one of his father’s ties this night, he noted proudly). His brother now works there. He saw many, many concerts at Royce throughout his life.
“This is daunting and mind-blowing and overwhelming to me,” he said. “After all the wild concerts I’ve seen here, I never thought I’d be doing this. Certainly.”
The gathering on stage included compatriots from various phases and stages of his career: winds player Vinny Golia and Quartet Music violinist Jeff Gauthier among the L.A. contingent, harp adventurer Zeena Parkins, slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein, keyboardist Yuka C. Honda (formerly of the band Cibo Matto, and married to Cline) among the NYC presence, as well as Bay Area violinist Jenny Scheinman, another long-time collaborator. And of course, twin brother Alex was on drums and a variety of percussion instruments, up to and including wrapping paper, which he crinkled charmingly for one number. (On a, uh, related note, Alex’s new album, “Ocean of Vows,” with a few of these same musicians in his Flower Garland Orchestra, is another wondrous release.)
Sometimes the music took on all the colorations of the full ensemble, other times focused on the smaller jazz combo core, with double-bassist Devin Hoff providing propulsive force. The ballads, the Rogers and Hart classic “Glad to Be Unhappy,” the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II musing “Why Was I Born?” (arguably the most “traditional” jazz performance of the evening) and the David Mann/Bob Hilliard-written Sinatra favorite “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” (the latter not on Cline’s album) among them, all sported ebbing and flowing orchestral dynamics and rich tonal colorations that mined and illuminated the deepest emotions of the songs, the muted sorrows and sparkling joys in equal measures. Not that it was all serious business. There was an engaging casualness at times, including a laugh-bringing bit when an audience member had to remind him to plug in his guitar as he was about to start one tune.
Arguably, though, it was the “almost” moments that were most arresting. “You Noticed,” one of several Cline originals, was a powerful tangent, with his soaring, elastic, electronically processed Fender JazzMaster lines calling to mind Norwegian guitarist-composer Terje Rypdal, a long-time Cline hero who has forged compelling intersections of jazz, rock and modern orchestral music. A medley of themes from scores to the movies “The Night Porter” and “Max, Mon Amour” (Cline is a big Charlotte Rampling fan) were modern classical/big-band at its daring best, with Cline engaging in some of the banging and scraping on the strings that have been part of his repertoire for ages, Parkins matching the approach on her harp. But then they all were also able to bring out those same sensibilities and richnesses in an exploration of and expansion on a Mancini passage from the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” score, “The Search for the Cat,” ostensibly more traditional movie music.
And while the massive, even raucous portions were breathtaking, the most profound passage was also the quietest. In the middle of a pairing of two Peacock compositions, “So Hard it Hurts” and “Touching,” the orchestra built to a massive, dense crescendo and then, suddenly, stopped. The sounds receded, leaving only an almost-subliminal high sustained note of quasi-feedback from Cline’s guitar and a steady, complementary note from a metal bowl rubbed steadily with a cloth-wrapped dowel by his brother standing at the back. Save for Alex’s steady circling of the bowl, utter stillness took the hall. Then, after a minute of this powerful hush, bit by bit the other musicians picked up the harmonics — vibes player Brad Dutz using a bow on one of his instrument’s bars, then some strings, then the winds, then brass…. and the breath that just before had been taken, now returned, renewed.