Southern California-based Cryptogramophone Records was founded in 1998 by violinist extraordinaire Jeff Gauthier
. Since its inception, the label has been on the upswing within the global jazz-centric community. In a sense, it has become an institution, featuring a roster of forward thinking musicians, such as Californians Nels Cline (guitar), Scott Amendola (drums), Steuart Liebig (bass), and of course Mr. Gauthier. The record label's manifesto is ensconced within pristine audio characteristics, artsy packaging, and a consistently versatile recording output. The record label's mission statement
sums it all up rather appropriately: 'Cryptogramophone presents state of the art recordings of creative jazz in beautifully designed packages.' The producers also state: 'We present artists who are not afraid of beauty, simplicity or complexity, as they explore the far reaches of artistic vision and instrumental technique.'
Although the label highlights among the best and brightest California musicians, Gauthier and company also employ artists from the East Coast and elsewhere. Essentially, the record label is enjoying a distribution expansion to coincide with its penetration into the far-reaching progressive jazz, avant-garde, and electro-acoustic jazz market.
In 2003, releases by trombonist Scot Ray and his quintet ( Active Vapor Recovery ) and Erik Friedlander ( Quake ), were included among many critics' top ten picks. In 2003 Bone Structure signified a collective effort by Gauthier, percussionist Gregg Bendian, bassist Steuart Leibig and guitarist G.E. Stinson. In certain respects, this outing typifies the record label's indelible stamp of originality. On this release, the quartet fuses ethereal jamming with shameless virtuosity via a sense of modulating extremism. Throughout, the listener will notice veiled melodies, accelerated by Stinson's electrified improvisations and his haunting unison choruses with Gauthier. It's a mind-bending experience indeed.
Released in 2002, guitarist Nels Cline reaffirmed his penchant for wearing many hats, so to speak. The trio's moniker, the Nels Cline Singers, is humorously misleading, since there are no vocals. A paradoxical reference for sure, as the album title Instrumentals parlays an impacting, quasi jazz-fusion format, awash with Cline's bone crushing electric leads and avant stylizations. Amendola and bassist Devin Hoff provide a hefty and rather sinuous bottom end for these largely experimental pieces, founded upon blitzing rock motifs and a few cosmic meltdowns along the way. Cline also injects ambient dreamscapes into the mix. Another superb 2002 outing finds acoustic bass hero Mark Dresser leading a trio date with longtime collaborator and hyperpiano enthusiast Denman Maroney. On Aquifier , woodwind specialist Mathias Ziegler offers contrasting elements and much more to complement his band-mates' hybrid classical-jazz-improvisation type motifs. With this production, the musicians navigate through darkly hued textures amid odd-metered pulses and whimsical interludes. Moreover, Dresser's arco work coupled with Maroney's unusual manifestations offers a surfeit of emotive characteristics.
Spanning 2000 through 2002, Cryptogramophone issued three separate CDs (Volume I-III) of the late bassist Eric von Essen's compositions performed by interchanging personnel. These recordings feature Cline, Gauthier, drummer Peter Erskine, various bassists, and many others of note, rendering interpretations of the West Coast bassist's body of work. During his career, von Essen performed with pianist Jimmy Rowles and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, to cite just a few. Notable jazz pianist's Alan Broadbent, and Alan Pasqua appear on many of these renditions, as von Essen's music is rooted within multi-colored pastiches of sound, regardless of tempo. His artistry is expounded upon these three CDs in passionate fashion, where the various ensembles execute breezy, post-bop vamps, swinging jazz grooves and penetrating ballads. Even when the music teeters on the red zone, von Essen's works contain a smooth edge, often highlighting a particular soloist on a per composition basis.
Jeff Gauthier's highly acclaimed 2001 solo endeavor, Goatette , is constructed upon climactically driven jazz-fusion choruses, marked with fluently executed parts. Gauthier interlaces the radiance of a classical violinist with the electronic fury of a stalwart jazz-rocker. Guitarist Nels Cline and his brother, drummer Alex Cline, help light a torch to the proceedings, whereas pianist David Witham and bassist Joel Hamilton round out the quintet with forthright intentions. Ultimately, Gauthier surfaces as a rock solid composer via these memorably tuneful numbers. Therefore, it's not just your typical electric jazz affair as there's quite a bit going on under the hood.
Consequently, Alex Cline's 1999 set Sparks Fly Upwards conveys his strong compositional style, not ordinarily befitting a progressive jazz drummer. At times, this recording sparks resemblances to some of the dreamier productions witnessed on Manfred Eicher's infamous ECM Records label. Partially due to the sonic aesthetic and probing lines performed by Gauthier, keyboardist Wayne Peet and guitarist G.E. Stinson. But it's vocalist Aina Kemanis who shapes the upper layers of this imaginative set, speckled with hauntingly beautiful segments, and corresponding sheets of sound. Essentially, Cline's music might seem either fragile or somewhat apocalyptic in scope.
The following interview with Jeff Gauthier was conducted via email.
All About Jazz: What are some of the main obstacles encountered while running this record label?
Jeff Gauthier: Where to start? The music is the easy part. I think that finding the right distribution partners is the most difficult task for any label. Right now the business is so depressed, that it's difficult to find distributors who understand and care about the music, who are also in good enough shape to pay on a timely basis. Right now some of our distributors and retailers are cutting back or filing for bankruptcy. This not only interrupts the cashflow, but also forces us to find new partners for the territories in question. Next on the list would be finding ways to break through all of the noise. There are so many small labels and so much good music out there, that it's difficult to break out and get our music noticed by writers, radio people and our audience. We try to do this by making the CDs look and sound as beautiful as possible. There really is a difference between what musicians can do on their home computers, and what professionals can do using the best technology. We try to highlight these differences.
AAJ: Any long-term shifts in direction or perhaps expansion, i.e. representing different genres, signing artists from other geographic areas, etc?
JG: We have a new package that we're pretty excited about. We call it a Cryptopak, and we've designed it from the ground up with a friend and supporter who is a printer. It's similar to the Digipak that we already use, but the look and feel is much more interesting and classy, and there are no plastic parts involved. We think that this beautiful, fully recyclable package will give us a special look that will set us apart. There's actually a lot going on that I can't talk too much about until the ink dries on all of the contracts, but we will be bringing new business partners on board, which will allow us to put out more CDs per year and also sign some artists that I've wanted to work with for some time. We already have artists in New York (Mark Dresser, Erik Friedlander, Gregg Bendian), and Los Angeles (Nels Cline, Alex Cline, Don Preston, etc.) and San Francisco (Scott Amendola) and plan to continue making connections between these three musical communities.
AAJ: From your perspective, and musically speaking, what is Cryptograqmmophone all about?
JG: Cryptogramophone was formed in 1998 to record three volumes of music by the late composer and bassist Eric von Essen, and also CDs by several L.A. based musicians who used to work with Eric, like Nels Cline, Alex Cline and myself. Our subsequent projects began making connections with musicians from the downtown New York scene like Mark Dresser, Erik Friedlander and Gregg Bendian, and the roster of artists has grown organically from this beginning. We've come to represent a contingent within the L.A. jazz community that has a sound that is informed by the jazz tradition, but leans more toward extended compositions that include improvisation at it's core.
Out of 22 releases (around 200 cuts) there are only two songs that could be considered "jazz standards," and one of them would be completely unrecognizable to most listeners ("I Love You," performed by Don Preston, from Transformation ). There are also a few completely improvised projects, but usually these are by musicians who have a history of playing this music together and have developed their own musical language. It then becomes the producer's job to put these projects together in a "compositional" fashion. We also went 4 years and 10 releases before we had a saxophone on any of our CDs. We now have 3 CDs out of 22 that include saxophone...and none as a leader. That's most unusual for a jazz label. It wasn't intentional either! Our music tends to be mostly string-based (guitar, violin, 'cello, bass) and piano based as well. We almost always generate our projects from the ground up, which means we're not really in the market to buy tapes, however I'm always listening, and occasionally interesting things find their way here.
AAJ: Is it an evolutionary process? Are you looking to expand your artistic direction?
JG: Yes, a completely evolutionary process. It's artist-oriented, and mostly centered around musicians that I've known and worked with for over twenty years. There is a lot of trust involved between the musicians and me as the producer, and I think this is what gives the label the "family" kind of feel that it has. I don't know if it's possible to expand the artistic direction beyond where it is, because it's expanded pretty far out there! We have straight-ahead jazz with Darek Oles and Brad Mehldau, the Downtown Scene with Dresser and Friedlander, scronk-rock, influenced jazz with Nels Cline and Steuart Liebig, creative wall of sound music from G.E. Stinson, Alex Cline's ECM modern classical influenced sound, Scott Amendola's Jam Band tinged music... I don't think there are many contemporary jazz expressions that we're not representing, except for maybe Smooth Jazz... and there's a reason for that.
AAJ: How do you approach the musicians/leaders for a given project? Or do they possess total artistic control, for example?
JG: Approaching the artists is a combination of me soliciting new artists that I'm interested in working with, and existing artists telling me when they are ready to do their next project. I figure that my job is to make the musician's dream come true. Sometimes this means just ordering the food for the session and being that extra pair of ears that is always needed. Other times the artist wants more involvement from me and it becomes more of a collaborative project.
AAJ: Where would you like to see yourself in five years?
JG: Ideally, playing music and producing more, and spending less time doing the actual work of running a label. Of course a lot depends on which way the industry goes. If music becomes a commodity without value, freely traded and discarded when no longer needed, then Cryptogramophone will be out of business. If people recognize the value of having record labels that can nurture and support musicians, and people continue to collect interesting music that is beautifully documented, then we will keep doing what we're doing.
AAJ: Upcoming releases?
JG: August 2004 - Like A Dream by Darek Oles, with Brad Mehldau and Bennie Maupin. "The Giant Pin" by The Nels Cline Singers. March 2005 - Time Changes by Mark Dresser & Denman Maroney, with Michael Sarin and Alexandra Montano, Cloud Plate by Miya Masaoka, Kaoru, G.E. Stinson and Alex Cline
AAJ: What type of studio environment do you use? How do you get "that" crystalline sound, where all the instruments shine forth with equal importance and clarity. With that, do you plan on producing SACD and Hybrid Multi-Channel CDs?
JG: All credit here must go to our engineer Rich Breen. Rich is the most skilled engineer that I've ever worked with, and he's also a fine musician. We try to find studios that give us the option of having the drums in a large, warm room, and complete isolation for the other instruments with good sightlines. These days we record direct to Pro Tools HD, and Rich is an expert at knowing which mics to use in which situations, and where to place the mics for the sounds we want. There are also some special things that take place in the mixing and mastering process that make our recordings sound the way they do.
I've explored SACD and 5.1, and can't justify the expense because of the size of the audience. I think that both technologies sound great, but our CDs sound pretty darn good using the technology that most people already have. The odd thing is that people seem more interested in compressed music using old technology (mp3s) rather than moving into these new territories. Until our audience goes there, we'll just sit on the sidelines for now. We are however represented on all the major digital downloading sites including iTunes, eMusic, Sony, Microsoft, etc. and we have our own digital store.
Visit Cryptogramophone on the web.