Jazz artists of every stripe in recent years have tried to tackle the colossal musical legacy of the late John Coltrane. Despite varying degrees of success, the proliferation of contemporary players willing to take on the Coltrane challenge is a giant step in the right direction. At a time when high-profile jazz still depends on tired standards in lieu of original ideas, the Trane fixation signals a profound commitment to using the past responsibly -- as a catalyst for present-day invention, self-exploration, and relentless forward motion. Given this, Interstellar Space Revisited is a monumental success.
Guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Gregg Bendian explain in the album notes that their interpretation of Coltrane's Interstellar Space -- his celebrated 1967 duet recording with drummer Rashied Ali -- is offered with humility and respect. This goes without saying; from the first few moments of the opening track "Mars," a full-throttle sonic blast that remarkably echoes Coltrane's outsized sound world, the duo's intentions are clear. Yet that doesn't make their achievement any less startling. Cline, in particular, pushes way beyond expectations. He not only evokes (at times) the legendary saxophonist's tone and phrasing -- on an electric six-string, no less -- but also strikes the maestro's signature balance of ferocious energy and Zen-like peacefulness. Cline's playing channels the spirit of Coltrane with a rare intensity, which seems to spring from the same well Jimi Hendrix would have drawn from had he survived to realize his post-rock aspirations.
Much like Hendrix, Cline derives his power from an overdriven tube amp, which he manipulates with great mastery. He combines this over-the-top volume control with tastefully executed whammy-bar antics and stunning cosmic effects, which range from rubber-band-sounding oscillations to Star Wars-like missile launches. Then there's his one-of-a-kind fretboard technique, which would give Segovia pause. But it must be noted that he could never have pulled this off without Gregg Bendian's propulsive depth to fuel the liftoff. A whirlwind drummer on the level of Rashied Ali, Bendian regularly stirs up the kind of rhythmic intensity that would break most players, yet Cline thrives under the pressure. Much like the original Interstellar Space, Revisited is a push-and-pull between world-class improvisers who want to see just how far off the ground they can transport the music. Clearly, the sky's no limit.
Nels Cline and Gregg Bendian perform with Scarnella, Bobb Bruno, and Species Being on Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 9 p.m. at Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St. (at Texas), S.F. Tickets are $7; call 621-4455.