In the aftermath of 2014's highly regarded Room, the acoustic encounter between guitarists Nels Cline and Julian Lage, both men speculated on what adding a rhythm section might sound like. To that end, Cline asked bassist Scott Colley and drummer Tom Rainey (who played hundreds of shows together as a running rhythm section during the '90s) to accompany the guitarists at a residency at John Zorn's The Stone in 2016. At the time, Colley and Lage were playing in Gary Burton's group when Colley joined the guitarist's trio. Cline, ever the wandering spirit, had previously played with everyone else. The residency went well enough to dictate a proper album. Currents, Constellations is Cline's second Blue Note album. He penned seven of the record's eight tunes; the lone cover is Carla Bley's "Temporarily," a rarity closely associated with the Jimmy Giuffre Three. According to Cline, the point of the group wasn't to feature "sovereign" guitar solos but to facilitate an organic ensemble sound, whether marked by heated collective improvisation or a more delicate and precise approach on more contemplative pieces. The funky, Monk-tinged "Imperfect 10," was released as a preview single, along with a promotional "in-studio" video to offer fans a live-in-studio feel. Hence the Nels Cline 4 moniker.
Interplay is the name of the game here. At its most intimate level, the frontline players feel like foils, but not competitors. Each discerns and exposes hidden shades of musical and emotional meaning in these tunes via structured interplay and improvisation. The pair often play in unison allowing for an easy exchange of ideas whether it be in harmonic or dissonant articulation. Check the sharded chords that introduce "Furtive," the set's opening track. While Rainey uncharacteristically grabs a solo immediately followed by Colley, the guitarists dive deep, offering call-and response leads, knotty fragmented lyric melody lines, and a tension that walks a knife's edge between post-bop and vanguard jazz. The bebop intro to "Swing Ghost" is played by both guitarists before shifting gears to make room for Robert Fripp-esque angular chords and tight improvisation along octave lines. That same approach holds true in the aforementioned "Imperfect 10," after the Monk-influenced melody. In Bley's "Temporarily," one can hear the influence of both the composer and Giuffre, but also Jim Hall, whose subtle approach to chordal improvisation is noted over and again. "River Mouth (Pts. 1 & 2)" commence like a Manfred Eicher production for ECM, with sparse, shimmering single lines and chords. Over more than nine minutes it spirals out to explore the rockist intricacies of Phrygian dominant scale drone. Currents, Constellations is virtually free of excess. Instead, it delivers a panoramic approach to group interaction with abundant dynamic and harmonic variety. From jazz to rock to improv, this set is a remarkable illustration of the question Cline and Lage posed about what they would sound like with a rhythm section. Damn fine is the answer.