Los Angeles based violinist Jeff Gauthier's fifth recording as a leader, House of Return is the third album to feature the capable talents of his self-coined Goatette. A veteran quintet of stellar West Coast improvisers, Gauthier and company work from a varied palette to explore a mix of sound worlds, ranging from thorny progressive fusion and unfettered psychedelia to folksy introspection and lush ballads.
As founder and producer of the adventurous Cryptogramophone label and co-founder of the influential acoustic group Quartet Music in 1979 (with guitarist Nels Cline, bassist Eric Von Essen and drummer Alex Cline), Gauthier's seminal role in the development of progressive West Coast jazz is implicit.
The aforementioned Cline brothers, along with longstanding collaborators, keyboardist Dave Witham and bassist Joe Hamilton, comprise the Goatette. Following a similar pattern to previous releases, Gauthier augments his own originals with pieces written by the Cline brothers and works from the late Von Essen, opening and closing the album with tunes culled from the bassist's deep back catalog.
Melodious and assured, House of Return is Gauthier's most accessible record to date. The session favors acoustic instrumentation with subtle real-time electronic effects that thicken the band's sound without becoming obtrusive. Harmonious and evocative, the luxuriant Von Essen ballads “Biko's Blues” and “Dissolution” inspire some of the Goatette's most sublime work. Nels Cline's languorous meditation ”I.O.A.” and Alex Cline's shimmering tone poem “Dizang” offer ethereal serenity delivered with knowing restraint.
The leader's titular centerpiece, which evolves through numerous changes in mood and dynamics, reveals his classical training. A spare electronic conversation between Gauthier and Nels precedes a knotty theme that yields a swinging piano trio feature in a buoyant 7/4 rhythm. A sequence of concise statements from the remainder of the ensemble ensues, including a plangent solo from the leader that briefly veers into outside territory.
The session's melodic focus doesn't forsake the quintet's power however. “Friends of the Animals,” and ”Satellites and Sideburns” are episodic electro-acoustic workouts that recall the seminal recordings of Weather Report and Lifetime with their angular ornate riffs and violent asymmetrical rhythms. Nels Cline's caustic fret-board shredding and the leader's clarion cadences coalesce with Witham's hazy analog keyboard work in a kaleidoscopic vortex as Alex Cline and Joe Hamilton navigate shifting meters and pulverizing downbeats.
A superlative group effort that displays their empathy for structure and form, as well as their capacity for freewheeling creative expression, House of Return is a gorgeous document from an underexposed West Coast ensemble that deserves wider acclaim.