Jeff Gauthier: Fiddling with the Future
“ At some point everybody in this business has to start asking the question, how long can we keep selling these things? ”
With over three decades playing in some of L.A.'s most innovative and interesting musical projects, violinist/composer Jeff Gauthier threatens to succumb to the irony of being better known as the founder/CEO of Cryptogramophone Records. Now in their tenth year, Cryptogramophone has outgrown underground status, even meriting a feature in trendy Details magazine. Boasting a roster including Nels Cline, Vinny Golia, Peter Erskine, Don Preston, Steuart Liebig, Alex Cline, and Gauthier's Goatette, Cryptogramophone also provided a safe haven for the long awaited creative rebirth of Bennie Maupin. Gauthier produced sessions regularly win glowing notices, and the label's artistic cred far outweighs its founding inspiration: Gauthier's desire to keep alive the profound compositions of his late friend, Eric Von Essen.
Despite the label's enviable achievements under Gauthier's guidance, all his committed efforts on behalf of L.A.'s creative music community have left him with little enough time to pursue his own musical visions. Even this interview, which intended to limit itself to Gauthier's musical present, frequently veers into Crypto talkafter ten intense years the boundaries blur. Inspired by his acclaimed new album, House of Return (Cryptogramophone, 2008), an enthusiastic reception at New York's Jazz Standard, and an exciting solo project, Jeff Gauthier, esteemed artist, seems poised to step out from behind the shadow of his savvy business self.
AAJ: Tell me about New York.
Jeff Gauthier: New York was amazing. We had three nights sell out at the Jazz Standard, almost every set had a full house. Nels Cline did yeoman's work. On Wednesday night he played with my band to open and the second set was Alex and Nels Cline playing a duo, which is something they hadn't done since their fiftieth birthday a couple of years ago, and before that, God knows how long it had been. Thursday night was the Nels Cline Singers and they just totally rocked the place. They played some new tunes, some older tunes from the old Nels Cline Trio. This was the first time the Nels Cline Singers, which is a trio, played some of the tunes from the old trio. And then Friday night Scott Amendola's band opened for the Nels Cline Singers. That was great, Charlie Hunter sat in with them. Pretty exciting.
AAJ: Did anyone get this on tape?
JG: Yeah, there was a taper there. I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet, but there's a good chance that we'll put everything up on our blogsite. Saturday night we had Myra Melford and Ben Goldberg's Quartet opening for Benny Maupin's ensemble, a really rewarding evening of music to have all these great musicians playing on the same bill together. And Benny's deal is really exciting with all these really interesting Polish musicians that nobody in this country has heard of, but they're pretty well known over there.
We went over to Warsaw to record Benny's new record, Early Reflections, and I was really astounded to see how strong and vibrant the jazz scene is over there. We recorded in Warsaw, but I also had an opportunity to go to Krakow. When you get off the train and walk to the center of town, there are four jazz clubs right in the main square, and there's a couple others within walking distance. There are some really strong players who don't get out of Europe very much, and don't get out of Poland very much. They have a national radio station called Polish Jazz, 24 hours of jazz programming a day blasted all over the country.
AAJ: How long had it been since you'd been to NY?
JG: This is our second year of doing Cryptonights at Jazz Standard, so we went last year around the same time as well.
AAJ: Did you record that?
JG: No, sadly. Wait, I'll correct that. There were a couple sets that were recorded, and there were a couple of sets that were video taped, including Nels Cline's set playing the music of Andrew Hill. That video is on the DVD included on our compilation CD which was just released, which is two CDs of Cryptogramophone music over the last ten years, and then a DVD that includes Nels Cline playing the music of Andrew Hill, and that was a combination of video taping at the Jazz Standard, video taping at the Club Tropical, and also some tape from the recording session with interviews with all the musicians.
AAJ: Isn't Bennie Maupin on the DVD, too?
JG: That's right. Aside from having two cuts represented on the audio portion, there's a twenty minute feature of Bennie playing with his Polish band playing, 'My One and Only Love,' and also one of Bennie's tunes as well, called 'Atma.'
AAJ: That's two CDs for the price of one, and a DVD?
AAJ: How do you stay in business?
JG: This one was a little bit of a miscalculation. We license all the tracks from the artists, but they're already recorded, so it didn't cost that much to put the recorded music on CD. So, I thought I'd really go crazy about the packaging, because part of the company's aesthetic has to do with the packaging, and giving something beautiful to the people willing to shell out the money for our CDs. The packaging ended up costing a little more than I'd intended.
Compilations are notoriously poor sellers, so I figured we had to give people good value for the money. So far, sales are going pretty well. We had a couple of good reviews. We got a feature in Details magazine. It was just something I wanted to do for the artists just to foster the sense of community, I wanted to do it for the fans, and to let everyone know after ten years, we're still here.
AAJ: Four years ago you did an interview where you were asked what you would like to see happen over the next five years. You said you'd like to be less involved with business, and more involved in creating your own music and performance. How successful have you been with that?
JG: Not very successful. Business still takes up far too much time. I have great people like Josh helping me out. It's my constant struggle to be able to find the time to practice, and to find the time to write. I'm very proud of the music that I have put out over the last five years of my own, and at the same time my output probably would have been more. I don't think the quality would have been any better, but having to juggle everything and wear all these hats takes time. I'm also very proud of all the music I've been able to produce and put out of other people.
It's always been the concept of representing a community, so in that respect, I feel like I'm doing my job. I could probably be doing a better job representing my own music, but that's my own personal struggle.
AAJ: How much do you play?
JG: I try to practice everyday, an hour would be great, two hours would be fantastic. It really depends on what's going on. It depends on if I have gigs coming up, I also do some orchestral work still. I'm still playing with the L.A. Master Chorale. I've given up some of my other orchestral gigs just because I've wanted to focus on my own music, and the business of running a record label is taking up so much time.
JG: It usually has more to do with deadlines. I get ideas and I write them down, and I collect ideas. Then when a deadline comes up, like, 'oh my god I have a recording session coming up in two months,' then I'll sit down with the ideas. I try to think in terms of the whole, what is this album trying to say. Then, I'll take the ideas and try to develop them into structures that fit what I'm trying to say with the album.
I had an interesting thing happen with this album, House of Return. I've been playing with these guys for so long, and Nels and Alex and I came from a collaborative ensemble called Quartet Music where everybody composed the music, but it was mostly Nels and Eric Von Essen who composed the music.
I knew there were a couple tunes of Eric's I wanted to include, and Nels said he was going to write a tune for the piece. I knew that, so I had four tunes I had to write. I started working on all these tunes, and then Nels called and said, 'I've got another tune.' And then Alex called and said he had a tune, so I actually had the luxury of having too much material for this record. I ended up setting a couple my tunes aside, and just going with what I thought was the stronger material representing the group vibe.
AAJ: Are you still running IndieJazz.com?
JG: Yes, Indie Jazz is the part of the company that makes a little bit of money. The idea behind Indie Jazz is that there are so many great independent labels doing music that's a little bit off the beaten path. The same vibe as Cryptogramophone, Nine Winds, pfMentum, Pi Recordings, there's all kinds of great little labels out there that don't have great distribution, and it's getting harder and harder to get good distribution these days.
So, the idea was to get a website together that would sell music by all these great labels, and sell Cryptogramophone music as well. People coming to look for Cryptogramophone music would see this other great music, and people coming to look for this other great music would find Cryptogramophone. It's been good in that it brings a little money into the company, it's establishing communication between all these labels. It's a little bit more work than I'd like, but then I also get introduced to a lot of great music that I probably wouldn't have heard otherwise.
AAJ: Will the Goatette tour behind the new record?
JG: I'm hoping we'll have something here in LA, and I'm think we'll have a little something at Yoshi's in the Bay Area. Still trying to figure out where we'll play here. Ever since we lost the Club Tropical [long time home of the successful Cryptonight concert series], it's been hard for me to find the right venue for my group primarily because we need a good piano. We don't always play loud, most of our stuff is on the more sensitive side, but we do get loud sometimes. We'd love to play at Cafe Metropol, but we really can't because of the volume issues there. It's difficult to find a place with a good piano where people will come out and hear us that isn't too expensive to rent.
The scene in L.A. has changed a little bit and I've been slow to adapt. I really miss the Club Tropical and the series we had there for three and a half years.
AAJ: Will Cryptonight rise again?
JG: I've got my eyes on a couple places. There's one place in development that's a theatre where they're going to be doing indie rock concerts with a little coffee house opening within it. I'm talking to them about the possibility of doing something there. We've been looking around. I'm sure there's a place out there for us, we just haven't found it yet.
AAJ: How many of Eric Von Essen's compositions remain unrecorded?
JG: That's a good question. I know there were 110 or 120 and I can't imagine we've come close to recording them all. We've probably come close to recording a third or a half.
JG: I have two of them, actually, a four string and a five string. They were made by a fellow named Rich Barbetta who lives in upstate New York. He still makes the pickups, which for my money are the best sounding string instrument pickups being made right now. But he only made the instruments for a short amount of time. He only made them for under a year and there aren't that many of them out there. I've got one of the very few and I feel very lucky about that, because it's really a brilliant design.
It was designed to have the weight and feel of a regular violin. The upper bouts, the way it meets the arm when you're playing in the higher position, the way it feels on the shoulder and the chin, it's very well designed to feel like a real violin, even though it looks nothing like a real violin. And then also, the sound of the pickup is still the best I've heard, and I'm pretty sensitive about that. The sound of the pickup sounds very much like a real violin which is a good place for me to start if I want to alter the sound at all.
There are a lot of pickups that have interesting sounds, but that's about all you can get of it. The sound is very electric. I prefer to have something that sounds like a real violin, so that when I use it in live performance people know the instrument that they're listening to.
AAJ: Do you use many effects or distortion?
JG: I'm using more and more. My mind has been polluted by Nels Cline. I have some pedals I'm pretty attached to now, and I've also started working with a computer-based performance rig which allows me to alter the sound with audio unit plug ins, as well as being able to make samples and use samples to play back at the same time I'm playing live. I'm working with this to develop some solo stuff that I can use maybe for the next record.
AAJ: Maybe a solo violin record?
JG: I'm working on it. I guess now that I'm telling you, I have to do it. It's always been my intention, and the way the business is going now, we made a big push this year to put out a lot of great music and put out the compilation for our tenth year. In some ways, it pales in comparison to 9 Winds which has been doing this for thirty years, and a lot of great labels out there. Just as a personal landmark for me, I never thought I'd be doing this for ten years.
Next year, we're going to be a little more circumspect. Business is changing. We've been putting out six releases a year for the last few years. Next year we may only put out four releases that are actual physical CDs, and then have a couple of download only releases. The world is changing and we have to change a little to go along with it.
It's getting more and more difficult to sell these CDs. We've tried to compensate in different ways. For instance, Indie Jazz and we put a lot of attention and love into our website because we figure if we're losing 20% every year of the physical sales in stores like Tower Records which have disappeared, the Virgin Megastore in L.A. which has disappeared, we can get these back a little bit through direct sales where we have a smaller margin. We make more on each CD that we sell, and that's worked to a certain degree. And then the sales of downloads has increased, but it hasn't increased as much as everybody expected. It's still only 11-15% of our total sales.
At some point everybody in this business has to start asking the question, how long can we keep selling these things? I know we have an audience, and our point of view has always been, it's our job to find them. So, we're doing a lot of marketing on MySpace and Facebook, LastFm, we have a blog, downbeast.com, trying to hook into some of these networking sites, work with community in a different way to drive more sales to the website where we can do direct sales. But, at some point we'll have to start cutting back on the physical CDs and sit back and see what's next. Maybe it's LPs, there seems to be a resurgence of LPs.
AAJ: You're sounding particularly soulful on the new recording.
JG: I don't really know what brings out certain feelings or moods in a particular performance. I could play those tunes on another day and they would come out differently. A lot of it has to do with the material that I'm working with, if it's a song with chord changes that ask for a certain approach. That's the way they came out at that particular performance on the day we recorded.
AAJ: How long have you had "Friends of the Animals"?
JG: That was written for the record, an idea that I'd been tossing around for three or four months previous to that. It was dedicated to my girlfriend who likes to shop at second hand stores, and there's a second hand store in Culver City called Friends of Animals, but for some reason we always called it "Friends of the Animals." I just worked with the title and some of the ideas to come up with a friendly animal tune.
JG: Joe Zawinul had passed away about a month or six weeks before the recording session. I know that's when Nels started working on that particular song. The title is a direct reference to Joe, his sideburns, and there's a particular style of Fender Rhodes piano that has satellite speakers, so that's where that reference came from. It's also a concept that especially in the Goatette, we've worked with for a long time, which is, Joe said once everybody solos and nobody solos. This is something that we've been doing since Quartet Music days. We're all thinking about the material and listening very intensely to each other and playing off each other.
Also, part of that, it has to be said, is the magic of playing with Nels Cline and Alex Cline, these twins who have been playing music together since they were five years old. There's some kind of connection that they have that once you get in the middle of this, it's like getting caught up in a wave. It's a very exciting thing. There are other situations where it might feel better to step forward and be the soloist, but playing with this particular combination of musicians it's actually more comfortable, I think for all of us, to really be playing with each other. It's very exciting.
AAJ: Have you played with Joel Hamilton and David Witham as long as the Cline brothers?
JG: No, no, no. I've been playing with Nels and Alex for almost thirty years with Quartet Music. But, after Quartet Music broke up, I was working with Eric Von Essen, trying to think who we could play with to replace Nels in something that would be more my project than a group project. Eric introduced me to David. So, the first Jeff Gauthier quartet record was David Witham, Eric, Alex Cline, and me. So, I've been playing with David about seventeen years.
When Eric passed away, Joel was the only guy we ever auditioned, and we played our first gig with him and realized he was the one. These are both really amazing musicians who are becoming more appreciated out in the world because of their work on Cryptogramophone. In fact, David just released a record called Spinning the Circle (2007).
They're both hard working musicians who are very successful as free lancers in LA. David's been George Benson's music director for as long as I've been working with him. He's played in Ernie Watts' band for years. Both these guys sound great on this record. Joel played the most amazing solo on "Friends of the Animals." He's got thirty seconds to do it, and he played the most amazing solo. It cracks me up every time I hear it.
AAJ: Do you have any production projects coming up?
JG: I have lots of ideas. For the Fall, there's going to be a new Nels Cline solo album, which is called Coward. Nels plays all the instruments. There's a lot of acoustic guitar, dobro, lap steel, electric guitar, he has this thing called the drum buddy that he plays. There are two large suites, and one of them is dedicated to Rod Poole, so there's some really wonderful micro tonal things going on in that one. I think it's one of the most personal things he's ever done.
And then there will be an Alex Cline CD released around the same time, which is called Continuation. That has Myra Melford playing piano, I'm playing violin, Peggy Lee is playing cello, and Scott Balton is playing bass. Alex is playing his huge drum set and all kinds of percussion and gongs. It's all Alex's music, and it's really a wonderful record. So, we're looking towards these for the Fall, probably late September.
AAJ: Any final thoughts on holding the line between business and art?
JG: Something's got to give. A lot about running this company, trying to put this music out, is all about pushing a rock up a mountain. At some point I'm going to have to realize that I'm tired and does it really make sense to push this rock up a mountain? At the same time I'm really happy with the way this new CD came out and it's inspiring me to want to do more.
The feedback with what's happening in the world is that people aren't interested in the CDs anymore, but they're still interested in the music. The playing field has leveled quite a bit and almost everybody can get their music out there some way almost as well as we can, even with all the distribution channels we have. The real difference we have is that we have a little bit of cache and people know the name of the label and if we send it to a reviewer they're more likely to look at it, and if they aren't familiar with the artist, they might say, hmm, "Cryptogramophone, I've liked some of the other things they've done, I'll give this a listen."
I am being called more to play the violin. Inwardly that is, the phone isn't ringing.
Jeff Gauthier Goatette, House of Return (Cryptogramophone, 2008)
Jeff Gauthier Goatette, One and the Same (Cryptogramophone, 2006)
Various Artists, The Music of Eric Von Essen, Vol III (Cryptogramophone, 2006)
Scot Ray Quintet, Active Vapor Recovery (Cryptogramophone, 2003)
Bendian, Gauthier, Liebig, Stinson, Bone Structure (Cryptogramophone, 2003)
Jeff Gauthier Goatette, Mask (Cryptogramophone, 2002)
Alex Cline Ensemble, The Constant Flame (Cryptogramophone, 2001)
Various Artists, The Music of Eric Von Essen, Vol.II (Cryptogramophone, 2000)
Alex Cline/Jeff Gauthier/G.E.Stinson, The Other Shore (Cryptogramophone, 2000)
Various Artists, The Music of Eric Von Essen, Vol I (Cryptogramophone,2000)
Alex Cline Ensemble, Sparks Fly Upward (Cryptogramophone, 1999)
Jeamette Wrate and the Northern Lights Ensemble, Echoes of a Northern Sky (Cryptogramophone, 1999)