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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.
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