Various Artists: Assemblage 1998-2008

Various Artists
Assemblage 1998-2008

It seems predictable that a jazz label with a dense, mysterious, barely pronounceable name like Cryptogramophone might travel under the radar. Widely respected, but largely unknown, Cryptogramophone has been producing albums of impressive quality and breadth since 1998. Their triumphant 2-CD retrospective, Assemblage 1998-2008 is highly listenable, accessible, and immensely engaging. What is the opposite of under the radar? Cryptogramophone is headed there.

Assemblage is 19 tracks and a bonus DVD showcasing 17 Cryptogramophone artists all hand-picked by founding label head Jeff Gauthier. Gauthier himself is an exceptionally lyrical jazz violinist who, as leader of Jeff Gauthier Goatette, is among the featured artists. Gauthier has also penned the compilation’s thoughtful liner notes. These liner notes reveal esteemed names from the worlds of both rock and jazz: Nels Cline (guitarist for a little band called Wilco), Andrew Bird, Bill Frisell, Brad Mehldau, and Jeff Parker (Tortoise). Other Assemblage contributors have lesser-known monikers, but are part of well-known ensembles: Scott Amendola (Charlie Hunter, Madeleine Peyroux), Erik Friedlander (Masada String Trio), and Todd Sickafoose (Ani DiFranco). Cryptogramophone allows the individual compositional talents of these artists to shine, very much independent of their day jobs.

I discovered this jazz label via violinist Jenny Scheinman, who had two of her own releases on Tzadik and played in the ensembles of Frisell, Norah Jones, and Lucinda Williams, before Cryptogramophone released her excellent 12 Songs. Assemblage reprises Scheinman’s pastoral, pacific “Song of the Open Road”. You’ll quickly understand why Gauthier added Scheinman to the label’s roster when you hear how similar this song’s thematic tone is to that of Jeff Gauthier Goatette’s “Solficka”. Two members of Gauthier’s band, brothers Alex and Nels Cline, also lead their own ensembles. While the Clines share the same blood, they offer two quite divergent depictions of jazz on this compilation. The Alex Cline Ensemble’s “Sonnet 9” is ten minutes of otherworldly serenity; the two tracks from the Nels Cline Singers display a penchant for angularity, noise, and dissonance.

I’ll soon seek out the full-length from percussionist Scott Amendola, who lankily underpins “Buffalo Bird Woman” while Scheinman and Nels Cline simultaneously navigate a treacherously tenuous tempo. The tune merges rock, jazz, and a desolate gravity, while projecting capital-B Blues. Cryptogramophone can also count on an up-tick in sales of Todd Sickafoose’s Tiny Resistors, whose textural “Future Flora” is featured here — six minutes of suspenseful delicacy enveloped in warm production and Andrew Bird’s violin. I’ve always been interested in cellist Erik Friedlander from his Masada work, and his adventurous “Consternation” on Assemblage pushes me even further towards Quake. And, as a Tin Hat (nee Trio) completist, I’ll have to pursue group member Ben Goldberg’s Quintet after hearing their Steve Lacy-inspired “Song and Dance”.

With full knowledge of their stunning back catalog, Cryptogramophone must view Assemblage as a loss leader: why else would they offer two delightful discs — did I yet mention the DVD? — for the price of a single CD? You are guaranteed to find new favorites. Perhaps it will be Bennie Maupin? He of both Headhunters and Bitches’ Brew opens the second of the two discs with the lovely “Escondido” and, on the DVD, headlines a 20-minute performance in Poland. It is a show of pronounced nuance, the camera subtly fading between the players of Maupin’s Quartet as they pass his tunes around.

A majority of the DVD is the hour-long feature “Nels Cline & Friends Play the Music of Andrew Hill”, complete with interviews exploring Hill’s legacy and footage from recording sessions for the tribute album New Monastery. The highlight here is scorching video from concerts in NY and LA, though the live sound could be slightly crisper. The DVD is worth the price of admission for Crypto completists, and will also undoubtedly draw fans of Nels’ work.

Cryptogramophone offered my review copy gratis, but will certainly get my financial support and sincere following in the future. Can I convince you to do the same?

RATING 8 / 10