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Inclined to some variety

Few guitarists are as difficult to pin down as Nels Cline.

Few guitarists are as difficult to pin down as Nels Cline. One minute you see him onstage at some festival with Jeff Tweedy in Wilco, the next you see him somewhere like the Institute of Contemporary Art, where he’ll be on Friday night with his trio, the cheekily-named Nels Cline Singers, sharing the stage with saxophone quartet Rova to form an avant-garde supergroup called Celestial Septet.

Often dissonant and usually only partially composed, the Septet’s music is a dance between chaos and order. Improvisational elements abound, but they’re given shape by directions from band members; in one piece, half the band plays composed parts while the other two improvise. Tempo and time signature are subject to abrupt change.

“It’s different every night,” Cline says, “but we know where we’re going.”

It’s all quite exotic and edgy for the rock-trained listener, but Cline says this sort of music’s been around since at least the ’60s, when musicians like Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith began to move improvisational music away from jazz.

He sees nothing particularly radical about it: “It’s just not playing a tune in straight time,” he says. “To me these changes are no different than E, A, D, G.”

Genre? Who needs genre?

Cline has wrung everything from metallic shredding to acoustic softness to jazz noodling out of his guitar. Is it jarring to switch between the avant-garde world of Celestial Septet and the Volkswagen-commercial stylings of Wilco? Cline says no: “My brain fits into a lot of situations,” says the 30-year music vet. “It just requires preparation.”

He credits part of what he calls his “aesthetic, multiple-personality existence” to the versatility of the guitar itself, which he de-scribes as “flexible, malleable and expressive,” containing infinite sonic possibility.

 
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