(139) Will Layman, Pop Matters -- 8/1/08

Jeff Gauthier is the man behind the sterling record label Cryptogramophone, an LA-area enterprise that has been releasing some of the most glorious independent jazz of the last several years.  Crypto has given voice to several major talents—including guitarist Nels Cline, violinist Jenny Scheinman, and reed giant Bennie Maupin—and it turns out that one of those talents is Gauthier himself.

Gauthier has long been deeply involved in essential West Coast jazz, beginning with handling the violin duties in Quartet Music, the 1980s band led by bassist and composer Eric von Essen and featuring the Cline twins, Nels and Alex, on guitar and drums.  Gauthier’s “Goatette” is in many ways the contemporary successor to Quartet Music, with the Clines still along for the ride, Joel Hamilton in the bass chair, and David Witham adding piano and keyboards.  The group always records at least one von Essen tune (here, “Biko’s Blues” and “Dissolution"), as well as originals by Gauthier and the Clines—continuing the notion of a jazz collective.

Also being continued on House of Return is a tradition of jazz inclusion and stylistic open-mindedness.  Quartet Music is said to have started as a response to the band Oregon—a group that championed a delicate kind of chamber jazz that blended melodicism, freedom and what would come to be called World Music.  The Goatette dips into various strains of “free jazz”, mainstream post-bop jazz, and fusion to create an unusually wide-ranging sound.  There are very few groups in contemporary jazz that try this, much less make it work as consistently well as does the Goatette.  Best of all, Gauthier mixes these influences in a way that is not a confusing patchwork. The Goatette has a singular sound that is relatively consistent from tune to tune.

“Friends of the Animals” makes the case nicely.  The Gauthier-penned tune begins with a groove bassline emerging from various eeks and electronic onks, leading to a sharp and snappy melody for violin and guitar that would not sound entirely out of place on a Lee Morgan album from 1966.  Witham accompanies not only on Fender Rhodes but also with some spacey effects that beautifully complement the mad guitar solo by Nels Cline—not a clean jazz sound here but rather an amped-up mountain of controlled noise that spurs Alex Cline to polyrhythmic heights.  When the violin returns with a lovely suspended melody, it’s like clouds parting, leading to Gauthier’s own sliding solo, drenched in blue notes.

Fans of the guitarist will be pleased with his two themes here.  “I.O.A.” is minor-mode melody over a mid-tempo backbeat and a bed of fat Rhodes chords.  The solo section is less a set of driving jazz solos than an exercise in creating texture, with Witham and Gauthier each sculpting the sound of the collective in turn.  “Satellites and Sideburns” starts with a series of three electronic fanfares over splashing drums, then it opens up a huge space for jamming, with the band starting in abstraction then settling into a funky churn—which eventually leads back to a written unison melody that brings it all together in a percussion breakdown.  It’s not your daddy’s jazz song, and it will shake your bottom, too.

The band is hardly restricted to smart fusion, however.  Alex Cline’s pensive “Dizang” has a cinematic feeling, as the rhythm section conjures a smoke-filled landscape over which Gauthier and Nels Cline sculpt a stately melody, only to have the tune explode into free-form play at the midpoint.  When the melody returns, the frenzy of drums and bass simply continues and increases, as if Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison had come on board.  The title track gives Witham a chance to work out more dangerously on acoustic piano, and Nels Cline plays with relatively straight jazz tone.  But the tune retains a sense of adventure, with both the introduction (for Nels and Gauthier only) and the first solo section being entirely free.

Throughout, the Goatette is happy to keep you guessing, waiting to see which of its traits predominates each tune.  It is a very effective tactic, and one that an artist might try only if he or she was very tight with the executive producer and head of the label.  Not a problem for Jeff Gauthier, who fills all these roles with grace.

This band is so nicely balanced that there is little temptation to think of it as being a novelty band—a jazz group led by a violinist.  Still, it’s worth noting that Gauthier handles his fiddle with confidence and flexibility as a jazz player.  He bends notes and plays blues without sacrificing his intonation, and he dodges comparisons to players like Jean-Luc Ponty, who pioneered the violin in contemporary jazz through his association with Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin.  Gauthier handles himself with lyricism, but not too much lyricism—with electric aggression, but not too much fusion-y technique.  One wonders if it isn’t time for Gauthier to start cracking the jazz polls as an increasingly capable hand on one the music’s least obvious instruments.

House of Return is a sharp reminder that the new jazz on the best independent labels exists both outside stylistic boundaries and within a careful understanding of history by the players.  Not only should Gauthier’s wonderful Cryptogramophone label be on your radar, but the Goatette too—despite its goofy name—looks like a band to keep track of. -by Will Layman

Will Layman
Pop Matters