What's in a record label? Some labels will sign and sling anything that'll sell, while some strive for a particular artistic identity. In 1998, violinist Jeff Gauthier founded the label Cryptogramophone to document the music of his friend, the late Eric von Essen. Von Essen was a Los Angeles bassist and composer whose résumé included Quartet Music (with Cline brothers Alex and Nels, the latter of Geraldine Fibbers and Wilco) and the legendary Lighthouse All-Stars, playing alongside LA jazz icons Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank. Expanding its vision, Cryptogramophone aims to nurture and document the efforts of creative West Coast musicians whose work embraces composition and improvisation on beautifully packaged CDs. Their catalog includes the Clines, jazz musicians Bennie Maupin (who played on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and in Herbie Hancock's Headhunters) and Alan Pasqua, locals Ben Goldberg and Scott Amendola, and ex-local violin wizard Jenny Scheinman.
Like many artistic adventurers, Gauthier is getting his act(s) together and taking to the road, bringing his ouvre to Berkeley, where it'll be appreciated. Wednesday and Thursday, March 25 and 26, brings Cryptonights to Yoshi's in Oakland — Wednesday features Be Bread and Alex Cline's Continuation Quintet; on Thursday, the Nels Cline Singers and the Jeff Gauthier Goatette. Both nights feature two divergent musical (ad)ventures with some overlapping players and distinctive concepts. Two of these units have Bay Area roots — the all-instrumental Nels Cline Singers features local drummer Amendola and bassist Devin Hoff, and the leader of Be Bread (from the Rumi poem "if you've not been fed/be bread") is New York transplant and Berkeley resident Myra Melford.
Melford is a globally renowned pianist and composer whose work reflects the post-Coltrane traditions of jazz piano (especially the percussive brilliance of the late Don Pullen) and her studies of music in India. (Melford also plays the harmonium.) She is featured on more than thirty recordings — nineteen as leader — and she teaches composition and improvisation as a professor of music at UC Berkeley. Her band Be Bread features a bicoastal cast of swells, including Seattle-based trumpeter Cuong Vu, New York bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Matt Wilson, and San Francisco jazz and klezmer clarinetist Ben Goldberg. Melford also has another local combo with Goldberg, Afterlife Music Radio.
Guitarist Nels Cline excels in a number of exceedingly diverse contexts, from both progressive rock and free jazz with drummer Gregg Bendian to all-out guitar onslaughts with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore to the mutant Americana of Wilco. The oddly-named Singers (since no one sings, duuh) is Cline's power-trio outlet for brash, rhythm-driven, rockin' noise — imagine if you will King Crimson as a surly youth garage band. His Singers discs on Cryptogramophone are cathartic gems (and lately, oy, do we all need catharsis badly). Cline's latest is the spiky, entirely solo, and assorted-instruments-via-overdubs set Coward.
Drummer and composer Alex Cline has played with the late free-jazz legend Julius Hemphill, Don Preston (an original member of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention), and LA free-jazz multireedist Vinny Golia, aside from leading his own ensembles. Unlike some drummers, Cline does not live for the Long Solo — his approach is subtler, more orchestral, at times a bit like an abstract painter. His latest disc, Continuation, is a work of sublime beauty. Scored for piano and harmonium (Melford again), cello, violin (Gauthier), bass (Scott Walton), and many percussion instruments, the disc consists of seven lengthy, elegiac selections. Each track perfectly balances composition and improvisation, with ruminative ambience and group interaction taking precedence over traditional tunefulness and a steady beat. While Continuation features Peggy Lee on cello, the Yoshi's gig will feature Maggie Parkins (sister of Zeena, avant-harpist with Fred Frith and Björk).
Last but certainly not least, the man without whom none of this might be real, is label magnate and violinist Jeff Gauthier. Initially inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and electric-era Miles Davis, Gauthier studied violin at the California Institute of the Arts. He performed with the symphony orchestras of Long Beach and Milwaukee and contributed to assorted movie and TV soundtracks, perhaps most famously those of the Star Trek constellation. His Goatette features the brothers Cline, pianist David Witham, and bassist Joel Hamilton — this configuration can and often does evoke the days when jazz-rock fusion was fresh and stimulating, such as the original edition of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa circa Hot Rats and Waka/Jawaka.