These guys have some good tunes, but they sound best when they’re just tuning in and taking off. Anyone who understands improvisational music would never, ever underestimate the value of a long musical association, and look at these mothers: As three-quarters of the L.A. chamber-jazz ensemble Quartet Music, violinist Jeff Gauthier, guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Alex Cline first got together three decades ago and have never ceased to interact for more than a few months. “House of Return” represents keyboardist David Witham’s and bassist Joel Hamilton’s third Goatette album, the first being “Mask” in 2002, and they were in the loop with the others well before that. A real team.
To add a further dimension of ectoplasmic memory, Gauthier graces each Goatette record with a composition or two -- this time the opening and closing tracks -- written by the fourth Quartet Musician, the late bassist Eric Von Essen. The EVH title “Dissolution” ends up being ironic, as it embodies just the opposite, an intuitive union: The five start by pinging, dinging and wailing softly together, so you can hardly tell who’s who; after a snatch of Miles Davis/Wayne Shorter’s “Circle in the Round” (for historical context), they coalesce around a melody so beautiful it could have been a romantic movie theme if it didn’t ring so real, and Nels’ acoustic guitar frames its simplicity with pointillistic modern chord variations that glow with sheer genius, whether Eric’s or his own.
In contrast to Gauthier’s sweet & sad fiddle, Nels strikes a fit balance via nasty underwater noise on the choppy Balkan folk of Gauthier’s “Friends of the Animals,” and through his waka-jawaka Shaft wah on his own “Satellites and Sideburns,” whose Arabic riff doesn’t drift in till the band has buzzed up a long multihued electro-Miles improvisation grooved by Alex’s speedbag rabbit-punching on the party balloon. On Alex’s highly abstract “Dizang,” Witham’s alien synth vibrations and Rhodesy dewdrops, along with Alex’s more destination-conscious evocations of Rashied Ali, connect the tissue behind Gauthier’s emotional violin narrative. Hamilton’s resiny lowness (perfectly recorded by Mike Aarvold) shines in his tumbling solo on von Essen’s resigned waltz “Biko’s Blues.”
Some of the violin riffs are unmotivating, as on the 6/4-to-4/4 title track; any deficits are soon forgotten, though, in the midst of the band’s energetic fuguing, Gauthier’s most intense solo, and the swelling low press Alex scares up at the end.
You may find yourself pondering the layered meanings of the illustrated flash cards that decorate the package, designed by “Gareth Jiffeau.” The new Nostradamus arises. - by Greg Burk