Eine Cline Nachtmusik

Let freedom ring: Scarnella's Nels Cline and Carla Bozulich

People think they crave total creative freedom, but most folks still find comfort in limitations and verities, in making tweaks rather than leaps. Jazz cats have their "standards" and theory to come back to; punks have the forced simplicity of "lo-fi." Even yuppies who try telecommuting out of the basement for two weeks speed back to corporate HQ as fast as their late-model Acuras will carry them. Seemingly all creative types secretly depend on structure to channel their natural proclivity toward self-indulgence.

Not so guitarist Nels Cline, a fixture in the criminally underrated Los Angeles improv scene for the past two decades. Cline seems to thrive on overextending himself into the unfamiliar. He's ambitious enough to claim John Coltrane and Sonic Youth as role models, yet gifted enough to approach their artistry. His experimental guitar interpretation of Trane's Interstellar Space on last year's Interstellar Space Revisited (Atavistic) was both audacious and surprisingly convincing, evoking the ethereal tone of the master perfectly. Just as good was his cover of SY's "Tuff Gnarl," as part of Mike Watt's touring band, which showed a nasty heart anchoring his broad mind.

Now Cline, who performs Monday, August 14 in Loring Park as part of the duo Scarnella, has just released three albums that show the benefits musical licentiousness can bring. The Music of Eric von Essen Volume 1 (Cryptogramophone) marks the first in a planned series designed to unearth hundreds of compositions by the late L.A. jazz bassist (who could best be described as a musician's musician's musician). At first the tracks sound like classic, clean modern jazz, with nary a freakout in sight. But there are some unexpected wrinkles--the salsa swing to "Peacemaker," the acoustic guitar/violin perambulations (played by Jeff Gauthier) of "Incomplete Circle"--that pull the proceedings away from KBEM's drive-time fare.

Turning up the volume on Myriad (Atavistic), Cline and percussionist Gregg Bendian relive the art-rock damage of their youth as part of Gregg Bendian's Interzone, the drummer's homage to British progsters Gentle Giant. On this, their second release, that band is still running through the sort of complex time signatures and busy percussion parts that usually send this critic screaming for the door. Yet Myriad is growing on me, partly because Bendian plays the vibes with an engaging crispness, partly because Cline tears off a great, exultant solo in the middle of "Drive." (And my soft spot for King Crimson seems to get softer with age.)

Much more austere is Cline's own release The Inkling (Cryptogramophone), whose session personnel were handpicked by ex-Geraldine Fibber singer/bassist Carla Bozulich, Cline's cohort in Scarnella. Though Bozulich doesn't join in, the lineup clicks: Harpist Zeena Parkins unleashes some unearthly electric sounds that gust alongside the squalls of Cline's guitar. (Add onto this cacophony the Space Invaders FX of Cline firing a toy raygun into the pickups.) Long, jittery noise explorations like "Queen of Angels" have a kind of delicate dignity, while acoustic cuts like "New Old Hat" and "Moth Song" feel unresolved beneath their pretty surfaces.

Too bad Scarnella themselves, whose Loring Park show marks their first Twin Cities appearance, haven't released anything since a 1998 self-titled debut on Smells Like Records. The duo lets Cline play off the woman he describes as his favorite singer. And those who have attended shows on either coast report that Scarnella's stretched-out improv is starting to evolve into songlike forms onstage. So until these two get back into the studio together--they appeared separately on this year's Two Dollar Guitar album, Weak Beats and Lame-Ass Rhymes--consider Monday's live show a handy stopgap--and yet another chance to hear Cline out of his element.

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