Nels Cline’s position as one of free improvisation’s most gifted guitarists is so solid that it’s mildly shocking when he waxes eloquent in comparatively trad situations. That said, I guess I should qualify the “comparatively” part of the last sentence. There’s no “I Remember April” or “All The Things You Are” to be found on Room, the celebrated duet date between Cline and fellow string player Julian Lage, but neither do aggressive freak-outs, storms of dissonance or ornery skronkathons mark these 10 tracks. Here, with one guitarist in the left channel and one in the right, it’s all about a pair of improvisers reveling in their rapport when it comes to working the lyrical side of abstraction.
The opening moments of “Whispers From Eve” help tell the story. It’s a spot where rumination takes on a glistening edge before the pair drops into an overtly charming melody. The partners find away of offering enough personal filigree to keep the prettiness sounding edgy. Something similar happens in “The Scent of Light, where a post-modern sense of balladry comes to fruition, forlorn phrases and blue asides getting lots of elbow room to express themselves. In the large, mood and design have a big say when it comes to where the next set of plinks and plunks will venture.
One of the record’s calling cards is clarity. Much of the action is sorted out, and that enhances the opportunities for grace to dominate. Waxing folky, with ringing chords supporting a nimble lead, is part of this act’s aesthetic. The emotional arc of “Freesia/The Bond” cultivates a near classical vibe, shooting off echoes of John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner’s Sargasso Sea. And like that almost-40-year-old ECM opus, deciding to sustain the open sections is a gambit that keep things intriguing.
Accord is paramount here. In a somewhat amusing way, this kind of affinity for second guessing each other defines the delicate oddities of “Blues, Too,” where the freebop parlance gets a spin around the block. The guys tinkle their way through some upper register maneuvers while making sure that their conversation always stay taut – the beauty of single lines quickly entwining. Then in a flash, the breeze picks up, blowing in a gust of strumming and soloing, as if Bruce Cockburn were trying his hand at Pat Metheny’s New Chautauqua.
Making a pitch for delicacy without belying their prog instincts, Lage and Cline deliver an edge-of-your-seat recital with lots of recognizable beauty.