Nearly 10 years into leading the winkingly named instrumental trio the Nels Cline Singers, it's hard to imagine what fringe of jazz and improvised rock could be unearthed next by the local guitar hero who joined the boundary-pushing band Wilco in 2004.
Now with their fourth album, Cline and a taut but feral rhythm section of bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola have regrouped for an often-breathtaking recording that's also their most rewarding and immediately approachable listen.
A sprawling double album split between one disc of studio recordings and a bare-knuckled live set, "Initiate" is steeped in the worldbeat-dusted jazz-rock of the ‘70s. Opening with a swirling chorus of electronic effects, they land a bracing first shot with "Floored," which finds Cline flexing a guitar tone akin to the warped keyboards of Chick Corea's work in Miles Davis' electric period while Amendola and Hoff lay down a concrete-busting funk-rock groove. "King Queen" forges a sort of psychedelic take on Cuban jazz as Cline and guest organist David Witham ride Hoff's elliptical bassline, building an insistent melody that opens to the outer limits.
They also show a more delicate side with "Divining" and "Zingiber" -- tracks featuring an atmospheric chorus of actual singing from the trio -- but with the second disc the group lays on the throttle and seldom lets up. Highlighted by a blistering, 14-minute cover of Weather Report's "Boogie Woogie Waltz" (featuring members of San Francisco indie band Deerhoof), they course through fiery improvisations while also nodding toward jazz tradition with a cover of Carla Bley's "And Now, the Queen" and a Jim Hall-dedicated version of the Singers' comparatively straightforward "Blues, Too."
Engrossing and ceaselessly inventive, "Initiate" isn't always easy listening, but it's essential for lovers of jazz and its fertile frontier.
-- Chris Barton