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Up to the mid-2000s, guitarist Nels Cline was probably best known for his work in the group Quartet Music (with brother Alex Cline, bassist Eric Von Essen, and violinist Jeff Gauthier) as well as other projects in the jazz, rock, and avant-garde idioms, and for his general involvement in the West Coast's improvisation community. However, since 2004, Cline has been a member of Wilco, which has opened up a much larger audience for the guitarist than is typical for even the most well-known of avant jazzers and creative improvisers.
Born in Los Angeles in 1956, Cline began playing guitar around the age of 12, when his twin brother Alex began learning the drums. By the time Cline reached his twenties, he was heavily involved in L.A.'s improvisational community and, in 1978, appeared on his first recording, Openhearted by multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia. He went on to appear on over 70 releases, lead several of his own groups — including the Nels Cline Trio and the sextet that followed, Destroy All Nels Cline — and tour internationally with a variety of bands. As a composer, Cline has scored two films in addition to writing much of his own material. He has also produced albums for himself, G.E. Stinson, and Jeff Gauthier, among others.
Bassist Eric Von Essen and Cline met up in the late '70s and began working together, recording an album of duets called Elegies that was released in 1980 on the Nine Winds label. Von Essen got involved in an orchestra with violinist Gauthier, and it wasn't long before the three formed a group of their own. Alex Cline sat in on their first concert and eventually joined the three permanently, resulting in the group Quartet Music, which remained together throughout the '80s. In addition to his work in Quartet Music during this decade, Cline worked with Liberation Music Orchestra West Coast, was a member of a rock band called Bloc, worked with Julius Hemphill as well as Charlie Haden, and released his first album as leader, Angelica, which included members of Quartet Music, saxophonist Tim Berne, and more.
The first half of the '90s found his new Nels Cline Trio hosting a weekly improv series for four years and recording as many albums. During the '90s, Cline also worked with Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth), Stephen Perkins (Jane's Addiction), Mike Watt (Minutemen), and the Geraldine Fibbers. A duo recording by Cline and percussionist Gregg Bendian covering John Coltrane's Interstellar Space was released by the Atavistic label in 1999. That same year, the California Music Awards named Cline Outstanding Jazz Artist of 1999. The next year, he released Inkling on Cryptogramophone, beginning a collaborative relationship with Andrea Parkins that would continue for the next several years. Destroy All Nels Cline was next, followed by the formation of the Nels Cline Singers, who released their first album, Instrumentals, in 2002.
In 2004, Cline was asked to join Wilco and has toured and appeared on all subsequent albums by them. He still had time for other projects, however: there have been several one-off collaborations during the ensuing years and two albums by the trio of Cline, Andrea Parkins, and Tom Rainey. In 2004, the Nels Cline Singers released Giant Pin, which Cline followed with an album of Andrew Hill compositions in 2006, the sublime New Monastery. Cryptogramophone subsequently issued two more releases by the Nels Cline Singers, Draw Breath in the summer of 2007 and the two-CD package Initiate in 2010. Later in the year, Cline released Dirty Baby, a double-disc collaborative project with poet and producer David Breskin. Breskin selected 66 period images by the artist Ed Ruscha and evenly split them into two groups, wherein he commissioned the guitarist to compose one long work and one short one to accompany the images, without further instruction. Cline recorded these with a large group of musicians including Jon Brion, Scott Amendola, brother Alex Cline, and Devin Hoff. There is also a lushly illustrated book version with larger reproductions of these works with 66 written pieces by Breskin. Add this project to all the work Cline has done as a sideman since the turn of the century and you've got one extremely busy, prolific, and versatile guitarist. In April of 2014, he appeared as a guest on Joan Osborne's Love and Hate album, was a full collaborator with Medeski, Martin & Wood on Woodstock Sessions 2. In 2014, Macroscope, with the Nels Cline Singers, and Room, a duet offering with classical guitarist Julian Lage, appeared on Detroit's Mack Avenue Records. ~ Joslyn Layne & Sean Westergaard, Rovi