Instrumental Round-Up: Nels Cline & Jon Hassell

I’ve been saying it for over a year now, but I maintain that, if you think instrumental music is boring, you must not have heard Marco Benevento’s inspired, outrageously fun record Invisible Baby, released early in 2008. (His new one, Me Not Me, ain’t bad either.) Recently, I’ve been listening to a couple of instrumental releases that don’t exactly capture the addictive mania or stylistic vibrancy of Benevento’s work, but they do go a long way toward showing just how diverse, eclectic, and surprising instrumental albums can be. They couldn’t be more different from one another– in fact, the only things they share in common are that they’re free of vocals and they’re both well worth hearing.

Nels Cline – Coward
It’s taken Nels Cline thirty years to release his first solo guitar recording– an astonishing statistic, given that he’s one of the instrument’s most celebrated and in-demand practitioners. As it turns out, though, the three-decade gestation period may have been exactly what he needed to make Coward the album that it is; his work as a session player, as the leader of his own off-kilter group the Nels Cline Singers, and, most recently, as a member of Wilco all come into play on this epic, fifteen-song set, performed mostly acoustically but touching on everything from country to free jazz, from classical to pastoral folk, from droning noise-rock to Sonic Youth-style electric guitar freakouts. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Cline’s craft, though, is that he plays all of these styles with the same understatement and modesty, as though he’s never given a second thought to his own eclecticism; thus, the album hangs together remarkably well, with shorter numbers like the lilting country of “Prayer Wheel” and the weird, cartoony effects of “Thurston County”– yeah, that’s one of the Sonic Youth-style songs– balancing the more ambitious pieces, like the epic, 18-minute eulogy “Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven,” a stately homage to a fallen friend, performed on guitar, zither, and autoharp.

Jon Hassell – Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street
A true poet of sound, trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell creates lyrical, dreamlike works that seem to have been borne of the weird, watery state between waking and sleep. With his electronically-enhanced trumpet, loops, and real-time live samples, Hassell is a direct heir to Miles Davis’ pioneering work in the 70s, and his latest work finds itself at the crossroads of whispered, In a Silent Way-style jazz and Brian Eno’s explorations in ambient music, with plenty of Arabic accents thrown in for good measure. It’s not exactly funky, and it certainly doesn’t swing, but its effects are oddly hypnotic just the same. The album’s title– taken from a poem by a 13th century Suffi mystic– gives you a pretty good idea of the dreamy, meditative quality this music takes on, and if the individual pieces are sometimes hard to tell apart, the overall effect of the album is difficult to shake.


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