Staying True to the Cryptogramophone Vision

Jeff Gauthier's Cryptonights showcase several of his focused labelmates.

What’s in a record label? Some labels will sign and sling anything
that’ll sell, while some strive for a particular artistic identity. In
1998, violinist Jeff Gauthier founded the label Cryptogramophone to
document the music of his friend, the late Eric von Essen. Von Essen
was a Los Angeles bassist and composer whose résumé
included Quartet Music (with Cline brothers Alex and Nels, the latter
of Geraldine Fibbers and Wilco) and the legendary Lighthouse All-Stars,
playing alongside LA jazz icons Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank. Expanding
its vision, Cryptogramophone aims to nurture and document the efforts
of creative West Coast musicians whose work embraces composition and
improvisation on beautifully packaged CDs. Their catalog includes the
Clines, jazz musicians Bennie Maupin (who played on Miles Davis’
Bitches Brew and in Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters) and Alan
Pasqua, locals Ben Goldberg and Scott Amendola, and ex-local violin
wizard Jenny Scheinman.

Like many artistic adventurers, Gauthier is getting his act(s)
together and taking to the road, bringing his ouvre to Berkeley, where
it’ll be appreciated. Wednesday and Thursday, March 25 and 26, brings
Cryptonights to Yoshi’s in Oakland — Wednesday features Be Bread
and Alex Cline’s Continuation Quintet; on Thursday, the Nels Cline
Singers and the Jeff Gauthier Goatette. Both nights feature two
divergent musical (ad)ventures with some overlapping players and
distinctive concepts. Two of these units have Bay Area roots —
the all-instrumental Nels Cline Singers features local drummer Amendola
and bassist Devin Hoff, and the leader of Be Bread (from the Rumi poem
“if you’ve not been fed/be bread”) is New York transplant and Berkeley
resident Myra Melford.

Melford is a globally renowned pianist and composer whose work
reflects the post-Coltrane traditions of jazz piano (especially the
percussive brilliance of the late Don Pullen) and her studies of music
in India. (Melford also plays the harmonium.) She is featured on more
than thirty recordings — nineteen as leader — and she
teaches composition and improvisation as a professor of music at UC
Berkeley. Her band Be Bread features a bicoastal cast of swells,
including Seattle-based trumpeter Cuong Vu, New York bassist Stomu
Takeishi and drummer Matt Wilson, and San Francisco jazz and klezmer
clarinetist Ben Goldberg. Melford also has another local combo with
Goldberg, Afterlife Music Radio.

Guitarist Nels Cline excels in a number of exceedingly diverse
contexts, from both progressive rock and free jazz with drummer
Gregg Bendian to all-out guitar onslaughts with Sonic Youth’s Thurston
Moore to the mutant Americana of Wilco. The oddly-named Singers (since
no one sings, duuh) is Cline’s power-trio outlet for brash,
rhythm-driven, rockin’ noise — imagine if you will King Crimson
as a surly youth garage band. His Singers discs on Cryptogramophone are
cathartic gems (and lately, oy, do we all need catharsis
badly). Cline’s latest is the spiky, entirely solo, and
assorted-instruments-via-overdubs set Coward.

Drummer and composer Alex Cline has played with the late free-jazz
legend Julius Hemphill, Don Preston (an original member of Frank
Zappa’s Mothers of Invention), and LA free-jazz multireedist Vinny
Golia, aside from leading his own ensembles. Unlike some drummers,
Cline does not live for the Long Solo — his approach is subtler,
more orchestral, at times a bit like an abstract painter. His latest
disc, Continuation, is a work of sublime beauty. Scored for
piano and harmonium (Melford again), cello, violin (Gauthier), bass
(Scott Walton), and many percussion instruments, the disc consists of
seven lengthy, elegiac selections. Each track perfectly balances
composition and improvisation, with ruminative ambience and group
interaction taking precedence over traditional tunefulness and a steady
beat. While Continuation features Peggy Lee on cello, the
Yoshi’s gig will feature Maggie Parkins (sister of Zeena, avant-harpist
with Fred Frith and Björk).

Last but certainly not least, the man without whom none of this
might be real, is label magnate and violinist Jeff Gauthier. Initially
inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and electric-era Miles Davis, Gauthier
studied violin at the California Institute of the Arts. He performed
with the symphony orchestras of Long Beach and Milwaukee and
contributed to assorted movie and TV soundtracks, perhaps most famously
those of the Star Trek constellation. His Goatette
features the brothers Cline, pianist David Witham, and bassist Joel
Hamilton — this configuration can and often does evoke the days
when jazz-rock fusion was fresh and stimulating, such as the original
edition of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa circa
Hot Rats and Waka/Jawaka.

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