Nels Cline grew up in Los Angeles, and the acclaimed avant-jazz musician lives in New York and spends a lot of time touring with Wilco, the Jeff Tweedy-led band for whom he plays lead guitar.
So why is the decades-in-the-making program of beautiful mood music that Cline will bring here Saturday called Lovers (for Philadelphia)?
And how did it come to pass that the guitarist to spend a year exploring the history of Philadelphia before devising his own interpretations of songs by such 215-connected music makers as John Coltrane, the Delfonics, and Brenda & the Tabulations, which he’ll perform in a one-time-only show at Union Transfer with an 18-piece band?
The answers to those and other Lovers questions go back to the 1980s, when Cline, now 62, already had a reputation as an experimental musician par excellence.
Back then, he played with such jazz trailblazers as Charlie Haden and Julius Hemphill and later teamed with noisier sorts, like Thurston Moore and punk-country band Geraldine Fibbers.
But along with his abiding taste for explosive feedback and psychedelic freakouts, Cline has always had a softer side.
Talking on the phone from Brooklyn where he lives with his musician wife, Yuka Honda (who will play Lovers’ keyboards in Philadelphia), Cline says he first thought of the idea for Lovers, which — with no Philadelphia parenthetical — came out as a double album on Blue Note records in 2016, “in connection with the romantic records of the late 1950s.”
Those albums “often used jazz repertoire as something that either demonstrates you’re cool or that you’d put on after you mixed the martinis and dimmed the lights.“
Cline, dubbed “the Avant Romantic” by Rolling Stone in a “New Guitar Gods” issue in 2007, cites some less cloying examples of the genre, such as Stan Getz’s Focus and Johnny Mandel’s soundtrack to the 1958 film noir I Want to Live!
He wanted to do something different, “a more forward-leaning, improvisationally expansive, and darker mood version, with the guitar as the main feature.”
Cline thought about the idea a lot, before and after he joined Wilco in 2004, which he says has brought him “a massive amount of increased exposure,” as well as much rapturous applause for his nightly incandescent solo on “Impossible Germany.”
He didn’t actually do anything about recording Lovers, though, until he enlisted Michael Leonhart. The trumpet player has aided Cline with the arrangements and will conduct Saturday’s performance, which will be recorded for a future episode of National Public Radio’s Jazz Night in America, hosted by Philadelphia bass player Christian McBride. Philly jazz guitarist Monnette Sudler will open the show.
For 2016’s Lovers, Cline recorded instrumental cover versions of Great American Songbook selections, like Rodgers and Hart’s “Glad to be Unhappy” plus songs by Hungarian composer Gabor Szabo and Sonic Youth before wrapping up with “The Bond,” a love song Cline wrote for his wife.
The project is an autobiographical history of Cline’s musical life. It’s also very expensive to produce. Lovers has been performed only eight times.
That presented a welcome challenge for Mark Christman, founder of Ars Nova Workshop, the South Philadelphia nonprofit that, he says with a laugh, is “in the business of presenting unpopular music.”
Christman estimates Ars Nova has put on 15 shows involving Cline, from the Nels Cline Singers to the jazz-klezmer mash-up Unfold Ordinary Mind.
Among artists carrying on the exploratory spirit of giants like Coltrane and Miles Davis, Cline is “at the very top,” Christman says.
Intent on making a Lovers performance happen in Philadelphia, Christman came up with a plan to lure Cline to town for multiple “R&D” visits in which the artist would engage with the city in a way that would inspire him to expand the project to include songs from Philadelphia’s abundant musical history.
That involved applying for a grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage “that would create an opportunity for something more than just Nels passing through town to play music,” Christman said. He hoped that introducing Cline to Philly’s “rich world of innovation” would light the guitarist’s creative fire. “And it did, in an even better way than I anticipated.”
“This is happening all because of Mark Christman,” says Cline. “He applied for the grant and said, ‘Here, you need to write this essay.’ … He sent me a list of Philadelphia artists that was staggeringly long, from Benny Golson to McCoy Tyner to Kurt Vile to all the Gamble and Huff Philadelphia International stuff. Mark should be some kind of cultural ambassador, if not mayor, of Philadelphia.”
Lovers (for Philadelphia) secured a $75,000 Pew grant. The money is being spent paying musicians, funding Cline’s cultural mission trips to town over the the last year, and helping produce an 80-page booklet about the project that will be handed out to all attendees. It includes an essay by Nate Chinen on Philly-born drummer Paul Motian, whose “Folk Song for Rosie” is part of the program and by former Inquirer music critic Tom Moon on Eddie Lang, whose “April Kisses” is included.
A Lovers research and development trip might include a morning visit to the Curtis Institute, followed by the Free Library of Philadelphia, where Coltrane studied sheet music, and an afternoon visit to the Sun Ra House in Germantown with Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen, whose 94th birthday was Friday.
And the evening might run down with a stop at Ardmore’s Tired Hands Brewing Co., where Cline, a craft beer enthusiast, worked to create a special Lovers tie-in. “I’ll do anything to experience making a beer,” he says. The resulting saison, which will debut at Union Transfer, is brewed with elements of roses, hibiscus, cacao, and strawberry.
The Lovers ensemble will include Cline’s twin brother, Alex, on drums. They’ll be drawing from the 2016 recording, plus 10 new Philly-centric songs.
The challenge for Cline in choosing those was to find songs that worked within the dulcet, not noisy musical setting of the original piece, and that also resonated with him personally. “I had to find things that had that connection, and also fit the sonic palette.”
In some cases, that ruled out music he would liked to have included, like West Philadelphia experimental indie band Bardo Pond. Other times, those restrictions made it simple. He loves sax great Coltrane and Philly pianist McCoy Tyner, so “Aisha,” from 1961’s Ole Coltrane with Tyner, was a no-brainer. As was the song by Motian, whose band Cline auditioned for unsuccessfully in 1983.
Other personal connections were trickier. He chose the Delfonics’ “La-La (Means I Love You),” because his ex-wife D.D. Faye grew up loving low-rider car culture in Southern California and the Thom Bell-William Hart tune “is a great necking song.” He found — and fell in love with — Philly pianist Uri Caine’s “The Magic of Her Nearness” on YouTube.
And upon learning that 1920s and 1930s star Ethel Waters was from Chester, Cline was inspired to add her version of Jerome Kern’s “Miss Otis Regrets” to the program. “It’s so incredibly relevant to today,” he says. “It’s a song about a woman that can’t have lunch with her friends because she’s just shot her lover … It fit right in.”
Remarkably, Cline says he hadn’t heard “Miss Otis,” until he started to work on Lovers (for Philadelphia). That’s typical of him, though, because “I’m not a jazz guy.” So what kind of guy is he? “I’m a fusion guy! What does fusion mean? It means nothing, a combination of all these things… I don’t think I’ve ever mastered a single idiom, other than that I do feel confident doing spontaneous improvisation. Other than that, music is kind of difficult for me.”
Focusing on Philadelphia music gave Cline plenty of pleasure. “If you just listen to Teddy Pendergrass’ voice,” he says with enthusiasm. “I mean, come on!”
While considering the greatness of Davis and Ornette Colman’s bands in the 1970s and ’80s that included Philadelphia players like guitarist Reggie Lucas (who died this month) and bass player Jamaaladeen Tacuma, he pondered further “what I was already aware of about Philadelphia music, which is a way of combining rock, soul, and jazz.”
Cline says he also “spent a lot of time thinking about the city’s rich cultural history.”
Along with the Free Library and the Curtis, he cites the Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia as a place that has long encouraged art-making as being “open to men, women, and people of every color and creed — and that’s back in the 1910s and 1920s!”
“That’s what struck me about Philadelphia, ” he says, “there’s so much philanthropy and so much egalitarianism. It’s mind-blowing considering the issues of race we’re still grappling with today … These were really remarkable accomplishments for back then, and would be so now. So that was inspiring, and it also made me feel a responsibility as I worked on this project.”