Whether playing with his own avant-jazz bands or Wilco, strangeness and invention are two of guitarist Nels Cline's defining characteristics. Since the 1980s, he's longed to cut a large-scale album of "mood music" revolving around the concept of love and romance. He made ever changing lists of tunes from the Great American Songbook, cinema, jazz, pop, and exotica, but thought the project beyond his capability. Poet and producer David Breskin convinced him to pursue it. Cline enlisted award-winning arranger/conductor Michael Leonhart and a chamber orchestra of 22 players -- trumpeter Steven Bernstein, guitarist Julian Lage, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, harpist Zeena Parkins, and vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen among them. Blue Note made Lovers a physical reality.
This 18-track, 80-plus-minute set pays homage to iconic muses: Henry Mancini, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones, Gary McFarland, Jimmy Giuffre, Jim Hall, and more. Uncharacteristically, over 13 covers and five originals, there is little anarchy and no guitar freakouts. Tunes fold into and rise out of one another, emerging with lush romanticism and erotic tension. Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Glad to Be Unhappy" commences with lilting clarinets, guitar chord voicings, strings, whispering brushed drums, and muted brass. Cline's "Hairpins and Hatbox" is a warm, lithe setup for the bluesy read of Giuffre's classic "Cry Want." Gabor Szabo's "Lady Gabor" is painted in drones and spacy modal melody. Guitars entwine around sweeping harp, moaning flutes, and rolling tom-toms. "Secret Love" is a direct tribute to Hall; it begins with a slightly dissonant percussive woodwind intro but breaks into airy swing as brass punctuates Cline's six-string break. Disc two is more experimental. Arto Lindsay's "It Only Has to Happen Once" is read as a mutant samba-cum-tango with a Morricone-esque guitar atop chamber strings. Cline juxtaposes noir-ish jazz, modern classical, and cabaret via the disparate themes from the films --"The Night Porter/Max, Mon Amour." A medley of Annette Peacock tunes, "So Hard It Hurts/Touching," offers shifting dynamics, drones, dissonant ambience, and sparse lyricism. Sonic Youth's "Snare Girl" is adorned by hypnotic tom-toms and an Americana-flavored guitar before Cline backmasks it and turns it inside out. The strings join in and it blurs toward psychedelic exotica. "The Search for Cat," from Mancini's Breakfast at Tiffany's score, is a serial cue that didn't make the soundtrack. Cline simultaneously balances swing and wry humor with suspense and theatricality, and even briefly quotes "Moon River." Closer "The Bond" is a tender, romantic ballad erected from a single rockist guitar vamp. Cline's emotionally resonant solo, framed by the backing of the entire orchestra, approaches the transcendent. Due to its extensive length and low-key demeanor, Lovers is demanding. That said, Cline's harmonic, textural, and timbral palettes deliver it as a compellingly engaging and original take on orchestral -- and by intent, conceptual -- jazz. He hears possibilities in the historical past and articulates them with timeless ardor. This may be Cline's quietest recording, but it is one of his finest.