With a musician as inventive and playful and adaptable as Nels Cline, every new appearance can be something of a guessing game. Who knows what sort of mood or tone he is going to take this time? The last time I caught him live, as part of clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s Unfold Ordinary Mind band, he was playfully lending little squiggles of electronic noise into the mix when he wasn’t quietly picking out chords to complement the quintet. Then he’ll turn into something of a rock god when he plays with Wilco, shredding out solos on tracks like “Impossible Germany.”
The work that he releases under his own name—or in this case with his ever-evolving Nels Cline Singers project—is where the guitarist strikes the most even balance. He allows for his prodigious skill on the instrument to come through with small blazes and flurries of fretboard runs shining through while also adding smatterings of unnatural-sounding effects pedal/electronics-led gurgles to be a driving force of his compositions.
The equilibrium is maintained even more strongly thanks to his chosen collaborators on Macroscope. Bassist Trevor Dunn shares a similar sonic palette, as heard through the screeches and burbles he dredges out on the opening of “Hairy Mother” and the stabs of notes and bop deconstruction of “Sascha’s Book of Frogs.” Drummer Scott Amendola delights in the sound of his various cymbals, splashing or pinging out little touches of melody as the mood of track allows. He completely gives himself over to a crashing attack towards the end of the extended track “Seven Zed Heaven,” letting the shimmer of his cymbal playing slowly build over the last three minutes into near cacophony.
At the same time, the Cline Singers turn out one of their most accessible moments as a trio: the restrained ballad “Red Before Orange.” It’s a delicate little tune with some fine percussion work by Cyro Baptista and a mood that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Pat Metheny or late-period John McLaughlin album. Like other tracks on the album—the 12/4 swinger “Canales’ Cabeza” and ambient shuffle becomes splatter gun of fusion opener “Companion Piece”—Cline and band are tonally keeping matters as straightforward as can be.
That adaptability by all three players (and their assorted guests) is what keeps all of them in such high demand in the music world. But to hear it in such crystalline form here on this fine album—one of the best jazz releases of the year to date—only adds to their combined reputation. We’ll likely be hearing a lot more from them together, and apart, very soon.