Pianist/trombonist Kevin Cline usually keeps a low profile, so much so that even his neighbors on Chicago’s northwest side probably don’t realize the depth of his talent. He’s been a strong, if understated, presence in a myriad of bands for more than 30 years, but is just now releasing his debut. This disc, Make Up Your Mind, promises that Cline won’t be a secret for much longer.
Being such a humble guy has its advantages. Rather than spending time hyping himself, Cline focuses on his writing, and the results are his 14 original compositions on this disc. While the buoyant tone throughout Make Up Your Mind is anything but workmanlike, Cline’s patience and determination are what made this disc happen.
Cline’s life in music reflects that perseverance. He started playing organ as a child, picked up the trombone a few years later added piano to the mix. Playing in high school ensembles made him focus on trombone, primarily when Cline joined Rich Daniel’s Big Band Machine. Along with Daniels, Cline attended DePaul University in the early ’80s and graduated with a degree in music theory. More work followed— ranging from the Glenn Miller Orchestra to the backing band for popular Chicago radio d.j. Jonathan Brandmeier, Johnny and the Leisure Suits. But he wanted to express his own self, which meant the piano playing a more vital role.
As Cline started to dig deeper, he studied with Chicago jazz pianist Peter Polzak during the late ’90s. Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett records became a bigger part of his musical diet. He built up his sense of harmony and theory and turned those ideas into his compositions, including this disc’s title piece. The end results pack Make Up Your Mind.
“I tend to hear bass lines and/or chord changes first and melody comes after that,” Cline said. “I then play the changes over and over as I sing melodies in my head until I find the melody that works best. I’m meticulous about chord changes in my writing. Often when the melody repeats, I like to throw in an alternate chord change or two, just to keep it interesting.”
This strategy is heard in “Make Up Your Mind,” with its shifts from minor to major keys. Cline’s technique is also a part of the opener, “After The Rain,” where Cline doubles on piano and Fender Rhodes.
“None of my tunes are named until I’ve written them,” Cline said. “I named it ‘After The Rain’ because as the ending approaches, the tonality changes quickly. It’s basically in the key of C major at that point and takes a turn to end in B-major. That sound reminded me of the sun or a rainbow appearing after a storm.”
But Cline turned to a different early inspiration for “Umbrella, Sunglasses & Gloves”: the horn bands of jazz-inspired 1970s rock, primarily Earth, Wind and Fire and Chicago. The sunny tone and Paul Zimmerman’s vocals here (and on “You Tend To”) echo the time when, as a teenager, Cline played his trombone along with Chicago records.
￼Other key sources include the musicians who Cline brings on to the recording, such as guitarist Dale Prasco who joins in on the Latin-tinged “Beware The Snake” and in a duo with Gailloreto on “April In June.”
Trumpeter Victor Garcia also mixes it up with Gailloreto (on tenor) on “A Shot Of J&V” and the quasi-bossa nova, “Shirley Not Forgotten.” Cline also built “Neighborhood Trolley” from its origins as a piano ostinato while he observed how the horns interacted. Another guest trumpeter, Bobby Shew, shines on the brass- heavy-but-breezy “Happy-Go-Lucky” and while he’s name checked on the title of “Song For Bobby,” that song also echoes another of Cline’s heroes, Bill Evans.
“That song combines Bill Evans-like chord changes played in a George Shearing style,” Cline said. “It’s in the key of E-flat, going to minor ii-V to relative minor C. Bill Evans did that often and was very unique in his use of minor ii-V chord progressions."
Most of the disc conveys an optimistic vibe, with “Santorini By Motorbike” a reflection of Cline’s visit to Greece and “Mistletoe, Me & You” a romantic Christmas-time song that he wrote for his girlfriend. But even within this upbeat sentiment, Make Up Your Mind offers an array of textures. The disc’s sole cover—an interpretation of “My Funny Valentine” that serves as a showcase for vocalist Isha Marie Lewis—Cline layers on the horns for a funk vibe with extra harmony. The disc closes with “Till Next Time,” a not-too-somber sparse ballad with just Gailloreto and Cline giving each other just the right amount of space.
No question that Make Up Your Mind is an opening statement, not a point of departure. Cline is already planning his next project, a pop/R&B disc that will show that will show an entirely different side of his musical personality. This man is in it for the long haul.
~ Aaron Cohen (Senior contributor to DownBeat)