Photo by Debra DiPaolo

ALEX CLINE FLICKS A FUZZY MALLET AGAINST A GONG the size of a tractor tire, and dense waves surge through his West L.A. rehearsal room. Vision blurs. Sinuses open. A nearby mutt woofs its head off.

“When you tap a big gong and stand right in front of it,” says Cline, “the sound is overwhelming. For a moment it's like you physically vanish. I think that would be therapeutic for a lot of people who hate their life, and everything is twisted into a knot inside them. You play the thing, and the triviality of it all is revealed.”

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In this reverberating moment, it's not hard to see how a gong might save somebody's life — which Cline says is just about what happened to him. The sounds he found in gongs, cymbals, bells and drums pushed him away from his teenage alienation and depression, into a universe that felt like home.

“It's an infinite world,” he says. “When you start developing a relationship with these instruments, they show you how they want to be played. You have to play with the degree of sensitivity and respect that's being demanded. It becomes addictive.”

As addictions go, improvisational percussion carries scant negative impact, except for the audience limitations that bang-a-lot types tend to experience. Not that Cline meant to join an exclusive club. In the early '70s, when Alex and his twin brother, multipurpose guitar extrapolator Nels, were coming of age, there was a sense that this open-ended music might be sort of . . . popular. Genre inventions such as the initial waxings of Weather Report, the Headhunters and Oregon were selling. The brothers noticed that even borderline rock groups were in on the action: King Crimson, for instance, was dedicating a third of its set to free jamming.

“The '70s are frequently reviled,” says Cline, “but people maybe now are starting to realize that there was a lot of amazing music. Ideas of composition and improvisation were being completely reinvented and recombined. Then you had the Mahavishnu Orchestra taking things to a new level, showing that really almost anything was possible — it just didn't even seem human. My brother and I labored under the illusion that this was a viable concept, ignorant of the fact that it was the formula for total doom.”

That's mostly a joke, of course, since the only doom Cline has suffered is the curse of discommodification. Few musicians would scoff at the places his obsession has landed him: on the bandstand, in the studio, and all over North America and Europe with the elite of jazz and experimental artists (Julius Hemphill, Charlie Haden, John Carter, Vinny Golia, Horace Tapscott, Tim Berne, Bobby Bradford and dozens more), usually playing exactly what he wants. Cline is a primary color on L.A.'s thriving new-music canvas, participating in everybody's ensembles and curating a mind-altering series of concerts at the Pasadena Shakespeare Company Theater. He's also recorded as a leader or co-leader on deep-perspective albums such as The Lamp and the Star (ECM), Montsalvat (Nine Winds), Right of Violet (with Jeff Gauthier and G.E. Stinson, Nine Winds) and Summer Night (with Quartet Music, Delos).

Atop these, you can pile a new pair of Cline releases. On the one hand, they exemplify a couple of his stylistic extremes (he has lots). On the other, they demonstrate his consistency, because all this diverse music glows with his own dual lights: calm and aspiration.

THE ALEX CLINE ENSEMBLE'S SPARKS FLY UPWARD HELPS launch Cryptogramophone (, a new label birthed by regular Cline collaborator Jeff Gauthier. Produced by Peter Erskine, the CD melds Gauthier's sweet violin with Aina Kemanis' ethereal soprano voice, Wayne Peet's airy keyboards, G.E. Stinson's furry guitar effects, Michael Elizondo's plucky bass and the inimitable Cline wash to refute the lie that meditation must be ascetic — Sparks supplies enough gloss and tactile variety for a dedicated sensualist.

It's all for the love of love; this is the first of two Crypto- gramophone projects in tribute to Cline's friends and influences. Most explosive is “Audacity,” which gives everybody a chance to jam and burn; it's for Tony Williams, the drummer who fatefully commanded Cline's ears nearly three decades ago: “I hadn't the faintest clue how he was doing what he was doing. I just knew I had to go that direction, and I never looked back.”

“Pieces of a Mirror” represents a more personal link: with the late pianist Richard Grossman, who helped Cline discover how to augment traditions of swing and melody with a personalized focus on timbre and time suspension. “Richard brought everyone into his musical presence with his first sound. I suppose Miles was that way.” The spherical smoothness of “Mirror,” shaped from the ghostly images that arise from rubbed cymbals, is shattered by dramatic kicks at a big bass drum, then reassembled in Kemanis' recitation of a moving poem by Grossman's wife, Dorothea. The track's methodology is Cageian: “I instructed everyone not to interact with me at all. I asked Wayne to play the piano in 'a somewhat absent-minded, dreamlike way.'” It works.

The album's centerpiece is its half-hour title track, dedicated to film director Andrei Tarkovsky. Cline started as a visual artist; to get an idea of how that still affects his work, close your eyes as the long, rich tones swell and combine, and see if you don't experience a galaxy of cinematic colors, or even whole scenes from Solaris.

While Sparks Fly Upward trains the camera mostly on Cline the composer, Espiritu (Truemedia Jazzworks), his duo recording with drummer-vibraphonist Gregg Bendian, turns loose Cline the improviser, who has long been known to spin audiences on a finger all by himself. This CD, though, offered Cline a chance to extend an axis he'd established in Bendian's band Interzone, which features bassist Mark Dresser and both Cline brothers.

Those expecting formless drummer indulgence may get whiplash from sudden re-evaluation. Both Cline and Bendian are congenitally concerned with pitch, a factor that jumps out even from the rhythm-heavy two-kit energizer “Taproot.” But when they're exploring the soul of metal — not Black Sabbath, but the shiny kind you hit with a mallet — on the nearly pulseless “Emerald Need Not Elaborate,” “To the Door” and “Embers,” the duo reveal a special kind of harmony where the blend of textures supercharges the blend of notes. It'll do funny things to your fillings.

Both recordings reflect the way Cline has always constructed his music — though construct is too harsh a word. The changes, while often radical, occur naturally, like the views you encounter as you walk along a mountain path. Cline seems to clear a quiet place and allow music to come into it.

THAT'S THE CALM. BUT IT'S CLINE'S ASPIRATIONAL aspect that opens his spirituality to Western ears. As much as he may talk about disappearing, and however many vast stillnesses he may paint in sound, his music always vibrates with an audible struggle. Whether it's a hushed, busy rhythm underneath, or the way layered metallophones hit you like four cups of coffee, some element can't help suggesting a restless desire to attain an unnamed pinnacle. And you feel that when he arrives there, he finds humans, not gods.

Cline's human heaven covers a wide range. Americans such as Pharoah Sanders, Shelly Manne and Elvin Jones are in it; Cline used to carry drums for L.A. explorer Sonship Theus just to be around him. The '70s avantitudes of Frank Perry, Tony Oxley, Pierre Fauve and other Europeans — “guys using industrial junk and broken cymbals and electronics and all” — rang his bells hard. He loves to dive into the modern orchestral clouds of Toru Takemitsu. He describes an early encounter with Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time as “absolutely revelatory.” And his first big hero was a tourist who's visiting town at the moment, Vincent van Gogh.

“Despite the incredibly exaggerated value put on his paintings in the most superficial way, they have an amazing vitality. This guy was a genius. And art is what makes life worth living.”

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