Jeff Gauthier is in a distinct minority, having made eclecticism a virtue as a musician, label founder and producer. Spanning wispy ballads and thumping fusion lines, House of Return, the violinist’s fifth as a leader, is as resolutely all over the lot as the Cryptogramophone catalog.
Were it not for the obviously close rapport between Gauthier and his cohorts, this would be a scatter-shot, if not schizoid album. However, essential continuity is provided by Gauthier’s 30 year history with the Cline twins Nels and Alex. They were three-quarters of Quartet Music, a woefully unheralded acoustic group that included the late bassist Eric Von Essen, whose nuanced compositions still loom large in his colleagues’ repertoire. Von Essen’s “Biko’s Blues” opens the album with the mix of airiness and melancholy Wayne Shorter coined on his early Blue Note dates, while “Dissolution” surrounds a heart-rending melody with swells of brushed drums and cymbals, 12-string guitar and piano. They don’t just bookend the album, they gauge the depths the Goatette explores.
There are sufficient reminders of these capacities in the intervening tracks. Some are improvised, like Gauthier and guitarist Nels Cline’s flinty duet on the violinist’s often searing title-track. Others reflect well-honed compositional strategies, like drummer Alex Cline’s use of delicate violin-led lines on “Dizang.” Initially, they cohere washes of gongs, electric guitars and keyboards, and then soothe the ensuring, seething ensemble improvisation. Subsequently, the occasionally obtuse effect and pugilistic passages are distractions, not deal-breakers. Still, someone almost instantly steps to the foreground to reengage the listener, and it is just as likely that it is bassist Joel Hamilton or keyboardist David Witham who provides the spark as it is Gauthier or either of the Clines, a measure of the well-balanced talents that comprise the Goatette. - by Bill Shoemaker