Musicians tend to make pretty decent label bosses. When I saw Adrian Legg perform several years ago, he extolled his new label, Favored Nations, because it was “run by a guitar player.” Violinist Jeff Gauthier is a triple-threat in this regard; he runs the Cryptogramophone label, produces some pretty happening names such as Jenny Scheinman and Erik Friedlander, and he’s one terrific bandleader. On top of all of that, he plays jazz violin like a bat out of hell, swinging the instrument by its tail and knocking over jars in the jazz, classical, and rock fusion departments in the process. Last time out, Gauthier’s modern jazz combo, The Goatette, was greeted with a year-end approving nod from Slate’s Fred Kaplan. Indeed, House of Return was a highpoint for music on the fringes in 2008, and its follow-up Open Source is just as good.
And when you are the founder of a label that enjoys a great critical reputation like Cryptogramophone, you have your pick of the litter when it comes to assembling a band. The usual suspects, guitarist Nels Cline and his twin brother drummer Alex, are on board as is label mate pianist David Witham. John Fumo supplies trumpet to act as unison for Nels Cline’s guitar while Joel Hamilton holds things down on the bass. To call this brand of jazz “eclectic” is an understatement. Its opener, “40 Lashes (With Mascara)”, doesn’t swing so much as it stabs. There aren’t as many build-ups as there are kitchen accessory crashes that occur with very little foreshadowing. This isn’t violent jazz, just very confrontational.
Gauthier doesn’t spend much time in the “free” territory, keeping his Goatette at bay during each go round. “Prelude to a Bite” and Whitman’s original “From a Rainy Night” spin melodies in a pretty structured way, though to what genre they belong isn’t as straightforward. The former’s chromatic up-and-down motion particularly rides a predictable rail. But it’s what’s loaded in the boxcars on top that matters, like Fumo’s instinctual solo. And until hearing the aforementioned “From a Rainy Night”, I never realized that a trumpet and violin could blend so easily. The closest the album comes to a free breakdown is “Seashells and Balloons”, which deceptively starts with Gauthier and Fumo gently batting back and forth a rather simple figure. The counter-melody takes hold, and despite Alex Cline’s caterwauling, the piece is still held in a steady sway. But then, are the axles breaking down and dragging, or is there some serious telepathy going on between these six guys? They probably want you to have the impression of one while secretly indulging in the other.
Open Source ends with the title track, worthy of extra discussion since it occupies nearly 25% of the disc. Sounding unlike anything that came before it, this is Gauthier’s classical influence gliding across the sky while Nels Cline supplies serene clouds of noise that, much like the world above us, can easily be taken for granted. As the song progresses, these bubbling sounds become slightly more active but never steal the show. Although the sighing lines that Gauthier and Fumo carry along here are not very indicative of Open Source as a whole, they demonstrate how Jeff Gauthier’s inspiration is an everlasting thing and not just academic mimicry. And so it goes with the man who set one of modern jazz’s finest and most creative labels in motion – through the years, album after album, the talk has been walked. Open Source continues the tradition.