The Little Label That Could: An Interview With Cryptogramophone’s Jeff Gauthier

[12 April 2007]

By Will Layman

Jazz is soooo damn cool—just think of Miles Davis in a dark Italian suit with narrow lapels in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, playing a tune like “So What” in a small club like Chicago’s Plugged Nickel or San Francisco’s Blackhawk.  Imagine Sam Rivers playing in a lower Manhattan loft a few years later, discovering himself among a group of shell-shocked listeners.  Consider the hip scene in a tiny 52nd Street club 15 years earlier, with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band spilling its Afro-Cuban rhythms—and vibes player Milt Jackson—out onto a crowded dance floor.

The problem, alas, is that each of these supremely hip jazz scenarios is at least 40 years old.  Back when jazz was cool, well, jazz was really cool.  It was edgy but adult.  It was challenging but inviting.  It was against the grain but smooth as aged whiskey.

Today, alas, jazz is too often Starbucks music or the music that accompanies a Cadillac commercial or the music some nerdy trumpet kid plays in his high school band competition.  Or, forgive us, that Kenny G elevator music.  Academic or cheesy: to many people that is jazz.  It’s an image so false yet, in the public’s eye and ear, all too true.

What jazz needs, fans might imagine, is a kind of makeover.  Some “re-branding”.  A marketing facelift.  A smart businessman with a well of affection for jazz’s unmatchably cool history but with an eye on tomorrow.

The man, it turns out, is Jeff Gauthier.  And he runs Cryptogramophone Records.

In the last two years, Cryptogramophone has put out more gorgeous, adventurous jazz albums than any other label.  In 2006, the imprint was cracking the top ten lists of countless fans and critics with new work by pianist Myra Melford (The Image of Your Body), alt-everything guitarist Nels Cline (New Monastary, A View Into the Music of Andrew Hill), and even former Headhunter Bennie Maupin (Penumbra).  Great music, cool name—even beautiful cover art and packaging.  Then why hadn’t I heard of Cryptogramophone until recently?

Gauthier, a violinist and the label’s leader, is certainly working to change that, mainly by putting out music that demands attention.

It All Starts With the Music
Gauthier grew up in Los Angeles and started playing classical piano and then violin at the age of eight.  But a passion for jazz, defined generously, was quick to develop.

“My Aunt Helen, who turned 99 in January, was my first violin teacher,” he says.  “But when I was about 14, I discovered the guitar and started playing in rock bands.”  It would not be long before Gauthier’s ears found jazz, through a best friend.  “His father was Harry Colomby, a producer for Columbia who had worked with Thelonious Monk.  We used to listen to Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Tony Williams, Bill Evans, and much more.  Then I heard John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and freaked out.  About the same time, Jean-Luc Ponty came to town and I heard him play with the Don Ellis Orchestra.”

Naturally, Gauthier began playing electric violin in bands, including “a high school all-city big band that had some great players.”  And while Gauthier was “pretty much hooked on jazz, hanging out at the Lighthouse and Shelley’s Manne Hole” while attending Beverly Hills High School, he was also continuing his classical study with Armand Roth, first violin at the LA Symphony.  Then, at the California Institute of the Arts there was “an emphasis on new music, and it was a great environment to refine my technique while being exposed to a lot of contemporary classical music, world music, and jazz.”

If your life goal might be to play a beyond-category brand of improvised music—and to found a record label as home to that music—then this is superb training indeed.

A “Cryptogramophone” Sound
The label that Gauthier would go on to found in 1998 is aptly named.  The prefix “crypto” come from the Greek word “kryptos” meaning “hidden” or “secret”.  Cryptogramophone, perhaps, suggests the phrase “secret recording”—a notion that nicely fits the sinuous mystery of so many of the discs that Gauthier has midwifed in the last nine years.

Perhaps no body of work on Cryptogramophone is more representative than the discs fronted by guitarist Nels Cline.  Like Gauthier, Cline is a West Coast guy.  Born in 1956 and therefore coming of musical age in the ‘70s, Cline is naturally a stylistic polymath—a guitarist like Bill Frisell or Jon Scofield who cannot play an “purist” note of jazz anymore than Trane or Miles could have ignored bebop.  Having collaborated with everyone from Charlie Haden to Thurston Moore and having famously joined Jeff Tweedy as a key collaborator in the band Wilco, Cline projects are mysterious before they even begin.

Take Instrumentals, the first album on Crypto for the Nels Cline Singers—the wonderful name for the guitarist’s non-vocal trio with Devin Hoff on bass and Scott Amendola on percussion and electronics—which spans a huge range of deliberately intense music.  On “Suspended Head”, the trio moves from delicate folk lyricism to thrashing punkcitement and back again several times.  “Cause for Concern” is a bashing bit of noise but finally lands on the lyrical edge of a knife—stating an angular melody that is part Ornette and part Jimi.  “Harbor Child” is a textural ballad feature for Hoff’s bowed acoustic bass that never loses its grit despite being beautiful.  Other songs suggest Jim Hall or Ralph Towner or Sonic Youth, yet all of Instrumentals hangs together as the product of a single brilliant but wide-ranging personality.  Not following a musical party line and not pulling surely toward the avant-garde or mainstream: that is the Nels Cline Singers, and it is also Cryptogramophone.

Gauthier’s own music on Crypto is with his quintet or “Goatette”: Cline, his brother Alex Cline on drums, Joel Hamilton on bass, and David Witham on piano.  Initially more accessible, it too “goes outside” soon enough, though not necessarily in a way that sounds more like free jazz than like new classical music or electronic composition.  Gauthier notes that this balance is both purposeful and organic.  “I think this is an unconscious attempt to create some kind of order and balance in my universe. I want every album I produce to take the listener on a journey, perhaps to places they’ve never been before.  But, I don’t want them to become frightened or bored to the extent that they might not stick with me to the end.  It’s easy for musicians to become carried away with a feeling, or a musical idea, and not notice that the audience has been left behind.  Sometimes, especially at the beginning of a program, it’s nice to bring the audience along slowly just to get their feet wet.  But then sometimes you just have to push them into the deep end. However, if that happens, I always try to throw them a life preserver.”

And so the Cryptogramophone sound is a multi-influenced and balanced.  On the label website, Gauthier explains that the label serves “the needs of a community of creative jazz artists committed to exploring the cutting edge of improvisation, composition, artistic vision, emotion, and innovation.”  While this community is various, much of it did grow from a single scene and even a single band.

Eric von Essen and Quartet Music
Gauthier formed Cryptogramophone for both practical and sentimental reasons.  In 1997 Gauthier’s friend and bandmate—the bassist and composer Eric von Essen—died unexpectedly in his early 40s.  Gauthier, along with the Clines and others, was determined to record von Essen’s tunes in a series of three albums.  And, rather than trying to sell the ambitious and somewhat obscure project to others, Gauthier became his own producer and record company.  Crypto was born.

Gauthier met von Essen in 1978 when he was right out of college.  “I fell in with the wrong crowd and started playing with Nels and Eric.  Soon Nels’s twin brother Alex joined us, and a band called Quartet Music was formed which made four albums and lasted almost 15 years.”

Von Essen wrote most of the music and, according to Gauthier, “most of what I know about improvisation and composition I learned from Eric.”  Plainly, through Quartet Music, von Essen was unknowingly framing the sound of Crypto.  “We were influenced by Miles, Ralph Towner and Oregon, Keith Jarrett’s early quartets, Bill Evans, and a healthy dose of Stravinsky thrown in for good measure. We were all young, but I think that group had something special that might be rediscovered at some point. Our recordings have been mostly unavailable for years, but I’m hoping to organize some reissues in 2007.”

With von Essen’s guidance and compositions as a literal jumping-off point for the label and for the musicians who started recording for the label, Crypto was given a certain boost as a musical enterprise: the certain beginning of an identity, a sound at once eclectic and centered in one sensibility.  Using inside and out, structure and freedom, jazz but also other musical beginnings, the Crypto musicians were ready to seek a new audience—a group of folks both beyond jazz and crucial to jazz’s future.

What Jazz Needs
As the millennium drew near, the jazz community was plainly reassessing.  The neo-classical “young lions”—Wynton Marsalis and Co.—had briefly put jazz back on the major labels in the ‘80s, but it was short-lived.  Knocking jazz’s recombination with rock and other modern music, saying that jazz had fallen off the track back in the ‘60s, and celebrating Ellington: It all sounded noble and was wrapped in some astonishing chops, but it didn’t point forward.  And it didn’t open up the music to a generation of young folks.  Soon enough, Wynton himself was bounced from Columbia records.  Everybody in jazz, virtually by definition, was “indie”.  The question was plain: what would make a college kid or a high school student want to listen to instrumental jazz in 2001?  How could jazz compete even slightly in a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot world?

Music is now a complex, cut-and-paste experience for young folks.  Their iPods are collections of a wide array of cool-sounding music.  Both hip-hop and various jam bands rose to prominence with almost no radio play, and music as disparate as Norah Jones, Gnarls Barkley, and the White Stripes captures the imagination, one song at a time.  If jazz is going to sneak onto those iPods—or if it is to inspire the purchase of whole albums—it will have to be freshly combined, not dully stuck in yesterday.

And it utterly fits the “indie aesthetic” that the music on Cryptogramophone is bold and fresh without trying to be anything “marketable”.  When Gauthier sought to start his own label, he was humorously discouraged a friend, jazz producer Ed Michel.  “He gave me the best advice I never took.  ‘Jeff, become a heroin addict instead.  It will be more fun, cost you less money, and you’ll be dealing with a better class of people.’”  But Gauthier already saw playing jazz as a luxury, something he did for free when the money was coming from orchestra and studio work.  The intent of the label was simply to “document a community of musicians who are dedicated to creating new works of art.”

And from the start, Gauthier saw it as an organic—and modern—enterprise.  “The community of musicians is open-ended.  It’s kind of like MySpace.  Musicians of like mind tend to gravitate toward each other and to similar kinds of sounds, and the label has coalesced and grown up around them.”  The result reflects the excitement and eclecticism of real community.  For example, violinist Jenny Scheinman’s 2005 Crypto release, 12 Songs, contains calypso, Albert Alyer-penned free jazz, theater music, dirges, folk music, and—oh, yeah—jazz.  That it is unerringly lovely and distinct is typical of the label’s product.  And if Scheinman is helped by having played with Norah Jones—as perhaps Cline is helped by being Wilco’s lead guitarist—then it is without even a whiff of compromise in their own music.

Coming within a year of its tenth anniversary, Cryptogramophone seems to be catching on.  March of 2007 finds the label hosting a full week of gigs at New York’s Jazz Standard—with Gauthier, Cline, Melford, Amendola, and Maupin all fronting bands—and including guests such as cellist Eric Freidlander, guitarist Brandon Ross, violinist Scheinman, trumpeter Cuong Vu, and others.  And so, if Crypto started as a relatively local LA label setting out to document a small scene, it is now much more.

West Coast Jazz
There has always been a minor stigma associated with jazz in Los Angeles and “West Coast Jazz” more generally.  New York is where it’s at in jazz, right?  But Gauthier has benefited from defining himself geographically, at least at first.

“I was born and raised in LA and never saw any reason to leave.  I was able to make a living playing in orchestras, working in the studios, and playing creative music for free.  I never really thought seriously about leaving because I worked with so many great musicians who turned out to be my best friends.” 

Developing his career and his label outside of New York seems to have bred resourcefulness and a certain sound in the work.  “It was hard to find places to play, so I developed a knack for finding venues where we could produce our own concerts. To this day I produce a weekly concert series in LA called Cryptonight at the Club Tropical.”

Besides, Gautheir notes, there is a “great tradition of West Coast Jazz, which includes Eric Dolphy, Gerry Mulligan, Shelley Manne, Jimmy Giuffre, Chico Hamilton, and especially John Carter, Bobby Bradford, Vinny Golia, and others who have had a great influence on the community.”  The artists on Crypto may have a certain open-ended West Coast Cool in common, but they are not ultimately restricted by it.  “It’s true that many of the artists we work with live in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, but musicians tend to branch out and be influenced by each other, so many East Coast players are represented as well. We’ve been fortunate in that some of our artists are now starting to be noticed by the press.”

What I hear in the “cool” of the Crypto sound is partly a West Coast chill but also comes from the superb training and experience of the leaders.  Gauthier accounts for it personally too.  “Being a string player myself, I tend to have a bias toward stringed instruments, which has heavily informed our sound up until fairly recently. Most string players have a background in contemporary classical music, so something of that aesthetic has defined our sound as well.”

Photo of Jeff Gauthier from JazzWeekly.com

Photo of Jeff Gauthier from JazzWeekly.com

The ECM Comparison
If Cryptogramophone is an indie jazz label with a “cool” aesthetic, a somewhat unified sound, and a “new music” classical influence, then is it the American ECM?  That European label, a bestselling home to artists like Keith Jarrett, John Abercrombie, and Jack DeJohnette, among many others over the years, is certainly the Mercedes of jazz labels—particularly in how it has influenced others, staked out clear territory, and yet still sold records.  The Crypto mix of free improv with folk and classical influences is very ECM.

“I think I own at least half of the ECM catalog. There was a time when I listened almost exclusively to ECM records,” Gauthier admits.  “The Crypto catalog pales in comparison, of course, however, there’s no denying the influence.”

Part of that connection, Gauthier believes, is an interest in world music.  “When I was at Cal Arts, I was exposed to North and South Indian music, African music, Indonesian Gamelan, and I hung out with composers who incorporated those sounds into their music. I think my ears opened up during my time at Cal Arts, and from that point forward, I’ve never been able to limit my appreciation of music to any specific genre.”

Finally, it is notable that Crypto, like ECM, pays great attention to the cover art and overall design of the CDs and “digipacks” that the label uses instead of jewel boxes.  “For me, our packaging is very important. Alex Cline is a brilliant graphic designer.  He and I work on most of the packaging together.”

While ECM discs typically feature a certain kind of spare graphic design with minimal photography and written content, Crypto boasts more striking use of color and arresting imagery.  Just as ECM somehow evokes a European visual aesthetic, Gauthier and Cline achieve something that suggests California and jumps right to the eye.  “These days people think that music should be free, so we try to give our audience a reason to buy our CDs—we want to give them something beautiful to hold in their hands and admire that reflects something about the music.  I want to make albums that people will collect and appreciate for years to come.”

Crypto for the Future
Gauthier did not set out on a grand cause, philosophical or otherwise, when he founded Cryptogramophone.  He just wanted to make a few records to honor a friend and mentor, and it seemed like less work to do it himself than to struggle with some other label and then not control the end product.  But in 2007, things may look different.

“I believe that people who create improvised music have to find ways to reach the next generation of listeners pretty quickly, or serious music is in danger of becoming marginalized—it might not be rediscovered for many years.  This has to happen on every level, from the music itself, to the ways people listen to and appreciate music.”

Gauthier, consciously of otherwise, believes that the future of jazz is forward, not backward.  “I think the Ken Burnses and Wynton Marsalises of the world have done a disservice by glorifying the past while marginalizing new ideas just because they don’t fit their own aesthetic.  This might raise the visibility of jazz for a minute, until people realize that it’s a dead end.  We have to find ways to embrace change and incorporate new ideas into our music, while still paying tribute to the past.  We have to find ways to embrace change and use new technologies to seek out new listeners so we can touch them with our art.”

Crypto is not about ignoring the past, but about seeing it anew.  Bennie Maupin’s 2006 release was the result of tradition and coincidence.  “I met Bennie Maupin at a concert I produced which was a re-creation of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band which had been a huge influence on me.  As we were getting ready to play I looked into the audience and there was Bennie Maupin, the woodwind player in the original band!  Bennie’s ECM record The Jewel and the Lotus had been a great influence on many of us.  You can imagine how we felt.  Bennie and I got together afterwards, and that was the genesis of Penumbra.”

Particularly, Nels Cline’s 2006 Andrew Hill record was a radical refraction of great music from 40 years ago.  “Many of us formerly young cats are reaching an age where we want to honor our influences. Several years ago Nels recorded Coltrane’s Interstellar Space for Atavistic. The Andrew Hill project grew out of Nels’s desire to pay tribute to a criminally overlooked composer and musician.  I think it’s valuable to periodically look back to honor those who have influenced us, especially if we start achieving some level of success.”

But looking back, for Jeff Gauthier and Cryptogramophone, is never the whole story.  “At the same time, I think the label will remain forward looking.  There are enough labels recording the great jazz standards.

“We’d like to create the standard for the next century.”

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/the-little-label-that-could-an-interview-with-cryptogramophones-jeff-gauthi/