The partnership between Nels Cline and the legendary saxophone ensemble takes root in the late 90s, when the parties started working together during the recording of Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser’s Yo’ Miles (Cuneiform). In the subsequent years additional collaborations followed, the multi-faceted guitarist becoming an established presence in the quartet’s Electric Ascension project, dedicated to the reworking of John Coltrane’s namesake masterpiece. The first sketches of what’s heard in The Celestial Septet were drawn around 2006, though this debut CD comprises recordings completed in 2008. Besides Cline and Adams the musicians involved are Larry Ochs, Bruce Ackley and Jon Raskin in the reed corner, drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Devin Hoff in the Singers’ corner. Perhaps the best depiction of the empathy that informs this artistic joint venture comes from Rova’s Steve Adams: “…there are two very well defined and rather different entities combining here, so that you always have a complex layering going on in the music”.
The mixture of neatly performed scores and gradual tendency to proficient discharge is the album’s principal feature, despite the relatively tranquil, half-dreamy atmosphere characterizing the opening track, “Cesar Chávez”. By “Trouble Ticket”, however, an irrepressible propensity to the cognizant use of extremely angular phrasing has taken center stage, whereas the longest track “Whose To Know (For Albert Ayler)” synthesizes the alliance perfectly by touching all the possible variables in an insightful player’s soul, from thoughtful stratifications of intelligible parts to outrageously imperious brutality. “Head Count” is a short, memorable, robust hymn that one can even whistle, and the final “The Buried Quilt” is a somewhat mysterious closure that mitigates whatever nerviness might have been accumulated previously, still maintaining a palatably dissonant nature at the base of the main structure.
There’s no need to explain the technical abilities of artists of such renown, who are highlighted throughout the program either in interconnected contrapuntal complications or in solo spots where anarchy and management of rage define a kind of temperament that sounds biting or introspective depending on the moment. If it’s true that there’s nothing exceedingly pioneering to be found in this record then its strength is all the more remarkable. Sustaining a listener’s interest for almost 70 minutes with this sort of stuff is not feasible if animal unruliness and spiritual grounding are not cautiously blended.