Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Smells Like Team Spirit

Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: Scott Amendola Band; Gregg Bendian’s Interzone; Nels Cline
Albums: Believe (SAB); Myriad (GBI); Destroy All Nels Cline (NC)
Source: Bought used (SAB); promos (GBI & NC)

My dad is a sports nut. Not as extreme as some, to be sure (e.g., to the best of my knowledge he’s never painted his face in team colors and gone to a game), but his office is decorated with Brooklyn Dodgers and New York (football) Giants memorabilia, and he’s more apt to quote the wisdom of Vince Lombardi than, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Which is not to paint him as a meathead – my dad’s probably one of the smarter people I know – but rather to indicate that sports is, for him, the well of wisdom from which he often draws. (Kind of like music and/or The Simpsons for me.) As such, many of the lessons of my childhood included healthy doses of the idea of teamwork and its importance to the commonweal. (There was also “Perfect practice makes perfect,” his own improvement of “Practice makes perfect,” which I had to be a bit older to see the tautological implications of.) Individual achievement was important – witness his collection of baseball cards by present and future Hall of Famers – but in the end, if the team lost, the enterprise had come up empty.

Maybe it’s this team-spirit grounding that has made me into someone who places great importance on the line-up of musicians for any given band and/or record. For instance, I’m more likely to think of Miles Davis’ timeline by the members of his band than the style of music they played.

In the case(s) of these three discs, for each one it was all about the team. The common element is Nels Cline, a guitar player of deeply impressive originality and breadth of ability who appears on each of the albums. I’ve seen/heard this guy do everything from gentle jazz to improvisational freak-out to straight-up punk rock. He’s currently adding his skills to Wilco, and I’ve heard that the whole team’s game went up a notch when he donned the Wilco uniform. He’s got his guitar, his pedals and his talent; all he needs to know is the team context, and his imagination will run wild.

Believe, a session helmed by bandleader Scott Amendola, came to me through a well-timed recommendation: the Downtown Music Gallery’s weekly e-mail blast wrote it up the day after I’d seen violinist Jenny Scheinman play a stunning gig at Barbes that involved a room packed with string players, all working together in conducted improvisations. When I heard that she was on this record, along with Nels and Tortoise/Chicago Underground axe-man Jeff Parker, I knew what I needed to do. After a lucky bit of eBay’ing, I had this disc, and it quickly became a favorite; everyone I’ve played it for has loved it, and its experimental/melodic/loose/structured/jazz/rock sounds are in my ears pretty often.

The other two were more accidental. After writing up Atavistic’s “Unheard Music” series for Harp magazine, the label sent me all their stuff for a year or two; both Myriad and Destroy All were part of that sizable haul. Both are pretty good, too, but not for everyday use. I learned that for sure with Bendian’s disc: when a woman I was listlessly wooing by lending her CDs mentioned that she liked jazz with vibes in it, I foolishly made this one the next loaner. Sure, Bendian plays vibes, but they’re run through noisy pedals and an avant-garde sensibility, supported by Nels and his drummer brother Alex in full-on-intensity mode. She gave it back with a sour look on her face and a comment something like, “Um, it was a little much.” Needless to say, that was the end of the wooing.

But both discs are good for noisy-ish moods – they have structure and coherent personaes that are less violent than lots of noise can sometimes be, each creating different kinds of amp-driven washes of sound and rhythm. Plus, I know my boy Nels is part of the team, and I know that often makes the squad a winner.

SISOSIG? What kind of team player would I be if I knocked Nels off the squad? He’s a reliable scorer with a flexible game, who both supports the team and takes it to the hoop every time. (See Dad? Your sports metaphors were not entirely lost on me!)


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