VIC FIRTH ARTIST
West coast drummer/percussionist Alex Cline is a sensitive player with a strong feel for interesting harmonies, shifting voices and changing moods when he writes music. It's a sensitivity not usually associated with drummers. But what's inside Cline, and comes through in his music, is from an artist and a musician, not merely a drummer.
He plays mainstream jazz gigs, but after his rock-influenced youth, he gravitated, almost by fate, to the free-form improvisers, getting his first break playing with Julius Hemphill. From that experience came a great many others. He's performed with an impressive list of musicians, including Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Frisell, Horace Tapscott, Henry Kaiser, John Carter. Cline, the twin brother of guitarist Nels Cline, headed in an improvisational direction from early on, recording a duo record with saxophonist Jamil Shabaka (Duo Infinity, Aten, 1977), and working on Vinnie Golia's Spirits and Fellowship (Nine Winds, 1977) with Carter and Roberto Miranda.
Cline, who grew up in the Los Angeles area and still resides there, was in his early 20s when a concert series materialized at a nearby venue, the Century City Playhouse, which was administered by an old high school friend. "It was a venue that attracted the more creative musicians playing jazz-type music here in L.A. back then," said Cline, adding with a chuckle, "Those people actually toured in their own country regularly at that time. This would have been in the day of things like Arista Freedom Records and Horizon and all these independent labels that were supporting that kind of music. So people coming through the west coast area had a place to stop in L.A. and play at the Century City Playhouse. Julius Hemphill was one of those people. He was coming through with Baikida Carroll and he wanted to play some music he had written for a trio (Hemphill on sax, Carroll on trumpet, with drums)." Cline was recommended and Hemphill was game.
"We played one gig here and he evidently liked what I did, so he invited me to play three nights with him up in Berkeley and invited me to play in Philadelphia, record an album and do a European tour. It was an amazing experience. I was 21 years old, from California—a wacky-looking guy with long blonde hair and a beard at the time. Nobody knew who I was. For him, it was a bit of a huge gamble." He also did a recording with Hemphill and Carroll at the end of 1977, "but it never came out," Cline recounts good-naturedly.
"The gig we did in Philadelphia had Abdul Wadud on cello, as well. (Julius) never told me what to play. I developed this distorted view of what playing this music could be like. The people I was playing with here, like Vinnie (Golia) and John Carter, were kind of the same way. Julius would get up and trust what I was doing and never told me, 'Do this. Do that. I want it like this.' He just let me play and he liked it, evidently. It was quite an experience for me."
It was experience that led him into a career of improvisational music that has many elements and influences. "I was incredibly fortunate in that the real elder statesmen of creative jazz music (in L.A.) were open and receptive to playing music with somebody like me, even going back to my early 20s," he said, respectfully. "If what I did seemed kind of potent, I was really still trying to figure out what it was all about. I got to play with people like John Carter and Ray Bradford and Horace Tapscott. This is not the most common experience elsewhere. These were people who were amazingly supportive and really open and accepting, and were also exemplary human beings. They were great role models for all of us. I feel incredibly blessed to have been here at a time when I was able to experience that with people like that."