(141) John Kelman, All About Jazz -- 2/4/09

Watching guitarist Nels Cline attack his electric axe with an egg whisker at his 2005 International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville performance helps explain the perennial question of how he does what he
does, though no single performance sheds a strong enough spotlight on
the chameleon-like guitarist's skill. Even when all the guitars and
effects used on Coward—Cline's first solo guitar album in his
30-plus year career—are documented, there's still the nagging feeling
that even that degree of detail doesn't tell the whole story.

it's best left that way. Although most guitarists eventually take the
plunge into making a solo recording, few create classics where, rather
than being measured against their other releases, the solo album
becomes the gold standard against which all others are gauged. John
Abercrombie's Characters is one, and while Coward

shares little stylistically or aesthetically with that guitarist's 1977
ECM disc, Cline has often shared a strong affinity with Abercrombie's
ability to morph into any musical context, while never losing the
definers that make him who he is.

reflected Abercrombie's musical position at the time, but was early
days; today Cline occupies a far bigger space. Equal parts skronky
noise improv, spare ECM-like lyricism, and folksy roots, Cline's as
influenced by Jimi Hendrix as he is Jim Hall. Coward
the guitarist's many stylistic markers through a personal prism,
creating colors and compositional landscapes that make perfect sense,
even as they traverse dynamics less likely explored when he's playing
in group contexts.

"Epiphyllum" and "Cymbidium" are dense, seemingly static soundscapes that, respectively, open Coward
on a dark, foreboding note belying things to come while closing it on a
somewhat more optimistic note. In between, there's a wealth of
evocative writing—ranging from miniatures to lengthy, episodic
suites—and the revelation of a rich, sophisticated harmonic
sensibility, and textural combinations of instruments and electronics
that are no less important than the writing itself. The combination of acoustic and electric guitars on the arpeggio-driven "Prayer Wheel" clearly references Characters,
as well as Abercrombie's duets with Ralph Towner. The oblique
electronics and abstruse finger-picking of "Thurston Country," which
lead to pulsing, acoustic guitar-driven strumming, stray closer to
Wilco, while the zither, banjo uke, Turkish 12-string and other more
exotic instruments that augment straight and prepared 6- and 12-string
acoustic guitars on the epic, 18-minute "Rod Poole's Gradual Ascent to
Heaven" create a steel-string-driven orchestra with a strong focus on
Cline's rich predilection for form over freedom.

Like the best solo guitar albums, Coward
transcends being merely an exercise in the instrument's vast
potential—though it is that, too. Impossible to create without Cline's
unequivocal virtuosity, the largely acoustic Coward remains about everything but
guitaristic acumen. Instead it's an instrumental masterpiece, further
positioning Cline as one of today's most open-minded composers, players
and musical conceptualists. Despite its not inconsiderable challenges,
it retains a surprisingly broad appeal, making it a true classic that
will likely keep aspiring guitarists scratching their heads for years
to come.-by John Kelman

John Kelman
All About Jazz