If Instrumentals, The Nels Cline Singers’ debut, starts with a nasty bite, by the end, it’s all country grace and good manners. Cline wouldn’t have it any other way. The California guitarist calls Instrumentals “powerjazzrockfreepsychedelicate instrumental music.” Or we could just call it a throwback. This is an old-time power trio: highly electrified guitar, bass and drums, every guitar shop’s dream band. (The “Singers” don’t exist. It’s just a “wry reference,” Cline explains, “to all those easy-listening groups from the 60’s.”) Indeed, The Nels Cline Singers draw a line from The Jimi Hendrix Experience to Triumph and then on to Bill Frisell and Prime Time.
The trio’s range is certainly impressive. Indeed, the nine originals are absolutely distinct. They include the classic, gruff, scale-obsessed lines in free fall (“A Mug Like Mine”) – think Tony Williams’ Lifetime. But Cline’s taken a great deal of care with many of these pieces. Initial themes morph into secondary themes, and solos are transformed into vigorous collective improvisations. And Cline makes use of the more attractive characteristics common to guitar-centric writing: from the images drawn by driving, muted chords to passages of lush, floating arpeggios. Pair this with an unusually sophisticated dynamic reach –often not a guitar trio’s strong suit – and a real drama develops. Ironically, the disc’s fundamental fault lies in its abundance. In a set that runs nearly 80 minutes, we’re wasted by the end. Disciplined editing would have brought greater power to the material.
The other Singers, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola, are a compact and loose combination. Hoff’s acoustic bass is a wonderful surprise: Filled with warmth (and regularly bowed), it’s an inspired and deft touch. Amendola is also a skillful tactician, cueing a clamor with cymbals or flattening his cohorts with a backbeat.