Musical Cline twins march to different beats
For a pair of identical twins, it’s surprisingly easy to tell Nels and Alex Cline apart.
Dressed in a T-shirt and dark, slim-cut jeans, spiky-haired Nels Cline looks the part of distinguished “guitar god,” even at 52 years old. Rolling Stone paid the angular musician the compliment in 2007 after he rose through the L.A. jazz and improvised music scene to join Wilco, a band he wryly admits many of his contemporaries have only heard of through their kids.
Drummer Alex Cline, by contrast, bears the softer edges and serenity befitting a man who has studied under Buddhist thinker Thich Nhat Hanh. Alex also has been a fixture on the L.A. scene for 30 years, but with his wire-rimmed glasses, he looks more like a professorial dad on a Saturday afternoon -- mostly because he is.
While Nels’ speech is marked by zig-zagging tangents, his brother measures his words carefully as the twins cover topics ranging from their record-obsessed West L.A. youth to their new albums -- “Coward” for Nels and “Continuation” for Alex -- released on the same day last month on the Culver City-based jazz label Cryptogramophone.
REDCAT is hosting a belated 10-year-anniversary for the label featuring the brothers’ respective ensembles tonight and Saturday.
“The fact that these recordings found their inceptions and were recorded at around the same time . . . in some way inspired a kind of summing-up,” says violinist Jeff Gauthier, Cryptogramophone chief and the brothers’ longtime friend and collaborator. “After many years of traveling vastly different yet somehow parallel musical roads, [the albums] say something very personal about the creative lives of these musicians.”
That shared musical path lends itself easily to what Alex has called “the twin unavoidability factor.”
Heavily influenced (or “damaged,” as Nels offers) by L.A.'s fertile jazz scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the brothers’ unifying thirst for new sounds led them to drummer Shelly Manne’s old Hollywood nightspot at a young age.
“Shelly’s was still, in my mind . . . one of the coolest jazz clubs I’ve ever been in,” Alex remembers. “It was just kind of funky and unpretentious, and ironically it was right down the street from what would later become the first location of the Catalina Bar & Grill. I say ironically for reasons that I won’t go into. . . .”
Talking with the brothers about favorite shows from those days is like asking a pair of Michelin-starred chefs to discuss family recipes. Memorable dates with Pharoah Sanders and Kenny Burrell fly between the two of them as easily as more obscure headliners at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach.
Capitalizing on the clubs’ all-ages policies, the Clines were recognized as regulars by the Lighthouse’s then-owner Rudy Onderwyzer, who also had booked Shelly’s Manne-Hole. It was a connection that helped the brothers get their start.
“For us to have been treated like we were one of the cats by Rudy and to step on that stage . . . was a kind of validation at an early age that I could never have expected,” Nels says.
In discussing their musical development, Nels consistently defers to his brother as the naturally gifted one. For a so-called guitar hero, Nels admits to having a longtime chip on his shoulder about his playing, thanks to some unfortunate instruction.
“I basically ended up with a mental block and a self-esteem problem for about 30 years,” he says flatly. “But it didn’t keep me from doing original music or wanting to play. And I could always play with a really good drummer.”
After cutting their teeth individually with such performers as Julius Hemphill and Charlie Haden, the Clines eventually teamed with Gauthier and composer Eric Von Essen for the group Quartet Music through the mid-'90s. That ensemble eventually led to the Clines’ symbiotic relationship with Cryptogramophone.
Since the label launched in 1998, the brothers have released 10 albums between the two of them, including “Coward” and “Continuation.” While both records have benefited from the exposure generated by what the twins genially call “Uncle Wilco,” it’s easy to imagine these albums finding a broad audience on their own. The acoustic-leaning “Coward” features plenty of stylistic jump-cuts, while “Continuation” is a sprawling, Eastern-tinged excursion.
While Nels can lean on his top-selling rock band for financial support, Alex has taken on a number of projects in academia and elsewhere to make ends meet. He suspects many of his peers on the local jazz scene are encountering similar challenges these days.
“It’s always been hard for younger players . . . to have any reason other than some incredible dedication and passion to want to play music that’s so utterly unrewarding in terms of the material side of life,” Alex admits. “On the other hand, I’m not a crusader for this kind of music . . . I just think people who do something different and more un-bookable need to be able to do what they do because it’s part of the artistic vitality of not only the community here but the community worldwide.”
“And so we doggedly pursue it anyway,” he adds with a smile.
Where: REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles
When: Myra Melford and Be Bread and the Alex Cline Continuation Quartet. Tonight and Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
Price: $20, $16 students
Contact: (213) 237-2800, www.redcat.org