Jeff Gauthier: Open

Ian Patterson BY

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Violinist Jeff Gauthier has been a leading figure in cutting-edge jazz on the West Coast since the mid-'70s. As a leader, he's produced half a dozen compelling works with his band of 20 years, The Jeff Gauthier Goatette. Open Source (Cryptogramophone, 2011) finds the quartet grown to a quintet, with trumpeter John Fumo bringing added fire to what was already one of the most exciting combos in modern jazz. Open Source blends folkish, pastoral airs with a very modern jazz aesthetic typified by the unclassifiable, yet always arresting, playing of guitarist Nels Cline. Drummer Alex Cline and bassist Joel Hamilton conjure deep funk rhythms one minute and swing hard the next. Pianist David Witham weaves a subtle influence every step of the way, and the use of effects lends a sci-fi edginess to the recording, particularly on the epic through-composed title track.

Gauthier himself has never sounded better. His refined playing is imbued with lyricism, and is a tantalizing blend of Ornette Coleman-influenced freedom and classically informed grace. Open Source may only be the band's sixth CD in 20 years, but perhaps it's a case of less is more, for Open Source is probably the Goatette's best recording to date, and certainly one of the best jazz CDs of 2011.

As head of Cryptogramophone Records, Gauthier has made an enormous contribution to contemporary jazz/improvised music in Los Angeles. Originally set up in 1998 to record the compositions of the late bassist Eric Von Essen, Gauthier's label also helped to create a stable of outstanding musicians/composers, including guitarists Nels Cline and G.E.Stinson; woodwind multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia; pianists Myra Melford, David Witham and Alan Pasqua; cellist Erik Friedlander; bassists Steuart Leibig Mark Dresser and Todd Sickafoose; violinist Jenny Scheinman; clarinetist Ben Goldberg; and drummers Scott Amendola and Gregg Bendian. Gauthier, it seems, is driven to record state-of-the art, adventurous music not for profit, but because it deserves to be heard.

In addition, Gauthier co-produces the Angel City Jazz Festival, L.A.'s only non- commercial jazz festival, which promotes innovative West Coast musicians, as well as those from the other three corners of the world. The music, says Gauthier, is all about community. Gauthier, it is safe to say, for 35 years has made—and continues to make—a great impact on the evolution and growth of creative jazz music on the West Coast. They'll write a book about him one day.

All About Jazz: The title Open Source would have made a good name for your band, as there are so many different elements to the Goatette's music. When you look back at the music the Goatette was making 20 years ago, and look at where it is musically today, how would you describe the evolution of the sound?

Jeff Gauthier: The obvious evolution of the Goatette over the last 20 years has been the addition of electronics and the incorporation of guitar and trumpet. The band went from a mostly acoustic quartet to a sextet incorporating electronic instruments and effects.

AAJ: What was the catalyst for this change?

JG: I think something happened around eight years ago when I did some live performances of two old [keyboardist] Herbie Hancock albums, Mwandishi (Warner Brothers, 1971) and Crossings (Warner Brothers, 1972), which introduced some electronic sounds into the band. So, in a strange way, revisiting some older musical influences changed the sound of the Goatette to make it more forward looking. The name Open Source was attractive to me because of its many meanings and interpretations. Nels [Cline] was the first to point out that it kind of sounds like "Open Sores," which cracks me up.

AAJ: Obviously the addition of trumpeter John Fumo changes the group sound considerably. He brings so much to Open Source. How did he come to be in the band?

JG: John and I have worked together a lot over the years, mostly in [bassist/composer] Steuart Leibig's band Quartetto Stig. We recorded three albums with that band, and we've always had an intense musical hookup.

AAJ: He dovetails very nicely with you throughout the CD. Was there an easy understanding between you, or did it take a lot of rehearsal?

JG: It's not always easy for string and brass instruments to match sounds, but with John that has never been an issue. He also has great ears, and we've always been able to improvise well together, like on the intro to "Seashells and Balloons."

AAJ: Was it difficult for him to fit in straight away with a long- established band?

JG: His integration into the Goatette was pretty easy. We only had three rehearsals before the recording session, and a lot of the material came together at the last minute in the studio. Sometimes with musicians who have so much history together, less rehearsal allows for more spontaneity, especially if they've done their homework beforehand, which these guys obviously did.

AAJ: You take more of a lead with regards to the songwriting than in the past, but just how much of a collective process was Open Source?

JG: Everything I write I consider to be a framework for improvisation. That being said, you're right that I brought more written music into this session than I have in the past. The core band has been together for so long that I tend to think of it as a collective environment where people can bring in their own tunes. Since Nels is so prolific, he often contributes music for the ensemble. However, his schedule was especially brutal this year, so he had to fly in and out for the session and didn't have time to write anything new. I also had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do for this album, so the music came together pretty organically, if not always easily.

AAJ: Has the Goatette's songwriting process changed much over the years?

JG: If anything, I suppose my writing has gone from being harmonic and jazz based to being more melodic and contrapuntal. This wasn't a conscious decision; I think I just ran up against my own limitations harmonically, and started going sideways instead of vertically. I've always loved the music of J.S. Bach, so the idea of harmony developing organically out of melodic interaction seems to have more of an attraction to me these days.

AAJ: There's tremendous breadth to the music on Open Source—there's dissonance and abstraction; there are very lyrical, pastoral passages, post-bop fire and a bit of electric jazz fusion, sci-fi effects, tight unison playing and great improvisation. At any point, did you think the CD might lose cohesion with such breadth, or did it just feel right? How much of a concern is it to find a balance, a flow?

JG: No, that's just what I do. I try to incorporate all the sounds I love into my music, and balance is always the key. I couldn't make a straight jazz album these days, any more than I could stop listening to different kinds of music. I truly admire musicians who can steep themselves in a particular musical language and advance it to the next level. However, if I have any gift at all, it's an ability to combine different musical elements in ways that are somewhat cohesive yet retain some kind of an original voice.

AAJ: Did much material get left on the cutting room floor?

JG: Nope.

AAJ: Open Source gets off to a roaring start with your composition "40 Lashes"—it sounds like it would make a great concert opener, no?

JG: We recently had some concerts in L.A. and New York where we mostly played the tunes from the new CD live, in sequence. Once I discovered the sequence for this album—a fairly arduous process, this time—it has been difficult to hear the tunes arranged any other way. They seem to work just as well live as on record.

AAJ: Nels Cline brings real bite to the music, and always has done so, but his use of classical guitar here and there is great, and it works almost subliminally. Would you talk about his playing on the CD in general, please?

JG: Nels knows my music and influences better than anyone, except perhaps Alex [Cline]. I've been playing with these guys for almost 30 years, yet they never cease to amaze me. Nels is so versatile and original that he always seems to choose the exact right sounds for the music, and it's rarely what you'd expect. I give him suggestions, of course, but he always takes them to the next level, even if that means laying back and fitting into the overall texture.

AAJ: Is it a challenge to blend acoustic and electric instrumentation, or after so many years playing is it easy? Playing live, it might sometimes be difficult to find the perfect mix.

JG: Actually, I rarely play the acoustic violin live with my band anymore, because after knocking myself out for so many years, I finally grew tired of fighting with the issues of volume, feedback and drum leakage. I've got a really good- sounding electric instrument that blends very well, so I don't really miss the acoustic instrument live at all. But I love playing the acoustic violin in acoustic performances without drums, and in the studio. That's one of the advantages of recording: you can do stuff in the studio that you can't do as well live.

AAJ: The soloing by everyone is just great. Was there much of a process in choosing between alternate takes, or did you instinctively know when you nailed a really tight version?

JG: This band has a history of working quickly, so having two full days in the studio was a bit of a luxury. I think we did two takes of most of the tunes, except for the title track, "Open Source," which was a one-take wonder. We also did a few edits, which consisted mostly of grafting the first half of one take onto the second half of another, usually to fix ensemble problems. Witham, Fumo and Nels are all great soloists, so their solos were uniformly great, but they did let me know some of their favorites, and I tried to incorporate them if I could.

AAJ: The clarity of sound of Open Source, and indeed of all the Goatette's records, is exceptional.

JG: That's the work of our crack engineer Rich Breen. His genius starts with choosing the right studio for the project. How's the piano? How much isolation do we need? Using the right microphones and mic placement—it goes on and on. It continues during the mixing process, as well. Rich knows just how to EQ every instrument and put it in its own acoustic space so that the blend and the imaging is just right. He's had his ears on almost every Cryptogramophone project, so he has effectively defined the sound of the label.

AAJ: The Witham composition "From a Rainy Night" is seemingly simple, but it has lots of subtlety, lots of layers, lots of nuance. Could you talk a little about this song and what Witham brings to the Goatette, please?

JG: I love that tune as well. Both Dave and I have serious [guitarist/composer] Ralph Towner damage, and "From a Rainy Night" is an older song of Dave's that comes squarely out of the Towner tradition. It's a flavor that I try to include on most of my albums, and it just happened that this was the tune that Dave contributed. Subtlety, layers and nuance just about defines the man David Witham.

AAJ:It seems there's a little of the spirit of the Mahavishnu Orchestra here and in some of the more serene passages of the CD. Is that a comparison you can relate to at all?

JG:We all listened a lot to Mahavishnu back in the day, especially Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971), but I think this album has more of a My Goals Beyond (Douglas, 1970) feel to it than Mahavishnu.

AAJ: Your own playing on Open Source is wonderful. It seems to inhabit a space between contemporary classical, jazz and folk. Could you talk a little about your approach to the violin? You tend to avoid the more strident extremes of the instrument.

JG: Thanks for the kind words. After we recorded Open Source we did some live performances, and the compositions started opening up a bit. Now when I listen to the recording, my playing sounds so careful and reserved. I wish I had taken a few more chances and maybe played a bit more stridently! However, that's the problem with recording. It's easier to take chances live rather than risk going for it on a recording and messing up a good take.

AAJ: You interpret [saxophonist/composer] Ornette Coleman's "Joy of a Toy"—a wonderful excursion into post-bop and free improvisation—and you've interpreted his music in the past, notably "Enfant" on One and the Same (Cryptogramophone, 2006). Were you influenced by his use of strings on Town Hall Concert (ESP Disc, 1962) or Skies of America (Columbia, 1972)?

JG: Ornette changed everyone's approach to improvising, at some point. I like playing his tunes because they come from a time in jazz when everything was on the table. The tunes are simple, and the forms are always a little bit different from what you'd expect, yet they have a kind of organic integrity that make them attractive vehicles for blowing. I've studied what Ornette has written about harmelodic music, but it still remains a mystery to me. But his is an intuitive approach to improvising that I can definitely relate to.

I can't say that his use of strings, other than his own violin playing, has had much of an influence on me. His own playing cracks me up, though, in a good way. So much of violin pedagogy is based on fear, that I truly appreciate when someone plays as fearlessly as he does and makes music. It serves as a reminder that technique isn't everything.

AAJ: The violin is not a widespread instrument in jazz. Does it surprise you a little that arguably the most expressive instrument of all, or at least the one that comes closest to the human voice, is not used more in jazz or popular music?

JG: The violin is pretty messed up, and the way people are taught to play it messes them up even more. I don't agree that it's the most expressive instrument. It has taken me years to learn how to breathe on the violin, and that's the very first thing you learn about playing a wind instrument. There are so many technical challenges to overcome that it doesn't surprise me that the violin isn't more common in jazz. It's so hard to find a voice on the instrument that doesn't sound too classical or too corny. Players like Mark Feldman and Dominique Piffarelly have really opened up the world of improvisation on the violin, but to take it to that level requires being steeped in everything from Stuff Smith to Alfred Schnittke. This takes a tremendous amount of talent and dedication. I'll never have that particular set of tools to work with, but I try to do the best I can with what I've got.

AAJ: On Open Source, "Seashells and Balloons" has a lovely, boozy momentum: chaotic and spontaneous, and melancholic. It stands out in the CD as an interesting character. How did this composition come about? Is there a story there? It sounds as if Tom Waits and Harry Partch had been drinking together all night.

JG: Really? I hear Sergei Prokofiev and Alberto Ginastera going out drinking together, but I can see where you're going with this. "Seashells and Balloons" started out as a way to showcase the trumpet and violin by improvising in a way that could move organically into composed music. I like pairing composed music that has a sense of humor with free improvisation, because it keeps the improvising from getting too serious and precious. It's so easy to slip into the "bloop bleep" school of free improv, but when the written music exhibits a sense of humor, it kind of cleanses the palate and opens up other possibilities. The title comes from an expression that my friend David Breskin likes to use, which is a quote from the great basketball coach Al McGuire. When he was asked right before an important playoff game how things were going with his team, McGuire said something like, "It's all Seashells and Balloons," which tells you absolutely nothing except that you asked a stupid question.

AAJ: "Prelude to a Bite" recalls the electric-fusion Miles Davis and that spirit, to a degree. These days, there seems to be a really amazing bunch of fusion musicians and bands out there, and the term is a much broader one than in the '70s; fusion is maybe not such a dirty word these days, and more open. What are your thoughts?

JG: That's where it all comes from, and fusion isn't a dirty word in my book, at all. Miles, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Mahavishnu—that was all considered fusion back in the day. Miles changed the face of music many, many times, and most of those ways haven't been fully explored nearly as much as they should.

AAJ: And what of the fusion music of today?

JG: The thing is, musicians have been following this path ever since the '70s. Maybe it's good that every few years or so the purists assert themselves and try to purge jazz of any undue influences. But I think it's healthy that people's ears are starting to open up again to different kinds of sounds. It's a sign that music is growing again, and if it doesn't grow, it dies.

AAJ: On the record is another composition by [bassist/composer] Eric von Essen—the very lyrical "Things Past." Could you talk about this song, and how you developed it from the original, please?

JG: "Things Past" was a piece that Alex, Nels, Eric and I played in Quartet Music, a band we had for about 12 years. I've put an Eric von Essen song on every one of my albums ever since he died in 1997, mostly as a way to keep his music and his memory alive. Over the years my memories of him have faded, but his music still sounds fresh to me. "Things Past" was written as a quartet tune, so I took a few liberties by adding a trumpet line to it. He probably would have written it differently, but that's what you get when you die too young—people mess with your shit.

AAJ: The song is dedicated to Shawn Bates—would you care to talk a little bit about this dedication?

JG: I dedicated the song to my friend Shawn Bates because she passed away suddenly right before the artwork for album was finished. Her death was a shock and tragic reminder of just how fragile this life is.

AAJ: Joel Hamilton and Alex Cline form a formidable rhythm team. Alex features a lot on "Joy to a Toy" but he and Joel color every second of the CD. What do you like about playing with these guys?

AAJ: I've been playing with those guys so long, they're like my musical family. I love them because they can rock, they can groove, they can swing and they can turn on a dime.

AAJ: The title track is an epic—this should really set an audience on fire. How much of "Open Source" is composed and how much is improvised?

JG: I'd say about half the piece is composed and half is improvised. The idea was to combine written music with improvisation, and to use some "old school" compositional techniques to move organically from the very sparse beginning to the rather intense and anthemic ending. The conversation between the drums and guitar is supposed to be a sort of improvised counterpoint to the written counterpoint. My idea was that this conversation would at times overwhelm the written sections.

AAJ: Beyond the spacey effects, which are quite powerful, it sounds like a modern classical composition. What was your mindset on this piece? Could you talk us through this track?

JG: The first half of "Open Source" features a melody that is stated three times in three different ways over a group improvisation. The first is an antiphonal statement between the violin and trumpet, the second is a two-part canon, and the third is a three-part canon adding the piano and bass. While all this is happening, the drums and guitar are improvising a wild conversation that is growing in intensity. The second half of the piece introduces 6/8 time, then turns that original melody upside down and backwards while harmonizing it. After solos over an E drone, the second melody repeats and works itself up into a frenzy, at which point the piece starts winding down and ends with the original melody, asked as a question by the violin.

AAJ: The use of effects in Goatette seems to have increased over the years. Has Nels Cline been the catalyst in this area?

JG: Nels Cline is the catalyst for all things. David Witham has also taken great strides over the last few years, developing his electronic arsenal. They are both very dangerous musicians.

AAJ: Will Goatette be touring to support this music?

JG: Well, we've done some recent concerts in L.A. and New York, but touring is difficult with this band because Alex doesn't travel much due to family obligations, and Nels is on the road with Wilco. Fumo also tours with Neil Diamond.

AAJ: How difficult is the touring side these days? We keep hearing of venues closing. It doesn't sound good, and yet live music is the lifeblood of the music, no?

JG: Venues come and go, and musicians' fortunes ebb and flow. Things are difficult right now, but I've always found it hard to tour with this kind of music. That's what got me into organizing my own concerts and eventually presenting other musicians. The Angel City Jazz Festival should have been the logical next step, but since I can't ethically book my own band into a festival that I co-produce, it's a classic case of the violinist shooting himself in the foot.

AAJ: The Angel City Jazz Festival this year had a great lineup: Satoko Fujii, Roscoe Mitchell, Rudresh Mahanthappa, The Necks. The list is pretty stunning. Tell us about Cryptogramophone's role in this festival.

JG: In theory, Cryptogramophone and Angel City are separate entities, but festival co-producer Rocco Somazzi and I often end up booking Crypto artists into the festival because historically they represent a pretty good cross section of the West Coast new-music community.

AAJ: How much of the building and running of this festival is about "community"?

JG: Community is what it's all about. Community is how music evolves and gets from one place to the next, kind like a big game of telephone. With the advent of the Angel City Jazz Festival, our geographical community has grown, but we try to represent as many of the local communities as possible. I say communities, because L.A. is a big and disparate—some would say desperate—place, with many disparate musical and geographical communities. Balancing all of this is a difficult task that we take very seriously.

AAJ: In this day and age, how does the fact that a non- commercial festival can thrive inspire you for the future of creative music?

JG: I'd like to think that creative jazz can thrive on its own, but in truth it's the enthusiasm of the musicians and the sleight of hand of the presenters that give it the illusion of thriving. We're always trying to figure out ways to trick a largely unsuspecting audience into believing that the festival is super cool and worthy of their support. If we can somehow convince people to come to the concerts, they usually respond favorably. We did a survey at our last big event where we asked the audience which artists they'd like to see at the festival in the future. The winner of this survey was—drum roll, please—Kenny G! So if we can somehow lure [saxophonist] Kenny G's fans into a 1200-seat amphitheater to listen to [saxophonist] Rudresh Mahanthappa and they end up actually liking it, we've done our job and I can sleep at night.

Selected Discography

The Jeff Gauthier Goatette, Open Source (Cryptogramophone, 2011)
Nels Cline, DIRTY BABY (Cryptogramophone, 2009)
The Jeff Gauthier Goatette, House of Return (Cryptogramophone, 2008)
The Jeff Gauthier Goatette, One and the Same (Cryptogramophone, 2006)
Various Artists, The Music of Eric Von Essen, Vol III (Cryptogramophone, 2006)
Scott Ray Quintet, Active Vapor Recovery (Cryptogramophone, 2003)
Bendian/Gauthier/Liebig/Stinson, Bone Structure (Cryptogramophone, 2003)
The Jeff Gauthier Goatette, Mask (Cryptogramophone, 2001)
Alex Cline/Jeff Gauthier/G.E. Stinson, The Other Shore (Cryptogramophone, 2000)
Alex Cline Ensemble, Sparks Fly Upwards (Cryptogramophone, 1999)
Jeanette Wrate & the Northern Lights Ensemble, Echoes of a Northern Sky (Cryptogramophone, 1999)
The Vinny Golia Large Ensemble, The Other Bridge (Oakland, 1999)
Jeff Gauthier Quartet, The Present (Nine Winds, 1996)
Steuart Leibig Quartetto Stig, Lingua Oscura (Nine Winds, 1995)
Yusef Lateef & Adam Rudolph, The World at Peace (Meta Records, 1995)
Jeff Gauthier, Internal Memo (Nine Winds, 1994)

Photo Credits
All Photos: Courtesy of Cryptogramophone Records

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