Last night I pilgrimaged to the Echo night club in Echo Park (just northwest of downtown LA) to witness Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche channeling the Divine. That’s what free improvisation music is to me when it’s performed by musical masters like these two. I’m a veteran listener, having been the consort for two years of one of the founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center and co-inventor of the Buchla Box (Ramon Sender) and spent significant time partnering the first person to play the MiniMoog in public performance, who also test drove the Moog Drum (Joe Gallivan). Joe introduced me to Nels at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in June 2000 at the Knitting Factory in New York City, on the night both of their bands played.
I set my new Canon Power Shot on a slow shutter speed and ignored the manual’s warning that this would require a tripod. I was rewarded with the distortions promised, which I think evoke the spontaneity, abstraction and texture of the music.
The Echo’s oft used for DJ shows, and there are no chairs. Since almost all of the audience was under forty, no one minded. No sign out front, low lighting and shabby-chic interior, a gen x boho bar in the genre of, say, Galapagos Art Space in the Williamsburg arts district of Brooklyn.
Bunny art in the powder room!
Nels opened the first set, solo, modestly introducing it with “I have no idea what I’m going to do.” He switched on a tamboura box (analog drone synthesizer) with a half-step drone, and over it played an electric lap steel guitar, massively distorted by a crescent of large and small pedals, and other gear on a nearby table that comprise his synth without a console that kept him moving constantly. It was gorgeous.
Later, he used a sequencer that recorded and repeated his riffs as a background drone, while he induced every sound except a guitar from two electric guitars while conjuring a storm, a choir, a war by singing into a vocal effects processer. From his back pocket protruded a metal spring and an egg whisk for alien strum effects. Nels Cline is a force of nature.
Second set was a drum solo. Really. Well, OK, a one-man band solo. Glenn Kotche’s kit includes a glockenspiel, a small gamelan, an electric kalimba, a recording sequencer, a wild collection of cymbals including two cut into hanging spirals, at least four different kinds of sticks including a set of two bamboo sections, and a bunch of long skinny springs he pulled for their shrieks. I was most blown away watching him play a complex rhythm with a shaker in his right hand while playing a melodic solo on the gamelan and glockenspiel with his left. He encapsulated the Ramayana while dedicating one piece to the monkey armies of Hanuman. Glenn’s pieces were mostly original compositions from his recent CD, Mobile, but one piece was by avant-garde composer Steve Reich, who I met through Ramon Sender back in the early ‘seventies. Joe knows him, too.
For the third set, Nels and Glenn inprovised together. During the entire two hours of music, not one person in the sold-out house of three hundred people whispered to one another or looked away from the stage. Everyone was enraptured. Joe and Ramon both used to complain about the small demand for avant-garde improvisational music, but I realize now that their audience simply wasn’t born yet.
I met a dozen new friends that night, including lovely Shawni D., born in Hilo, Hawaii.
After the show, Nels told me he’d reviewed What Living’s All About on his website. I was touched. All genius, no arrogance, that man. I happily copied his review over to the WLAA reviews page of my site when I got home.