Los Angeles native Jeff Gauthier is a veteran improviser and composer with a knack for drawing gifted artists into his orbit. While he's an adept and eclectic performer, the violinist may be best known as the man at the helm of Cryptogramophone. Founded in 1998 to release the compositions of the late Eric von Essen, a friend and frequent musical partner of Gauthier's, the label has carved a unique market niche over the last decade. In addition to issuing critically acclaimed jazz albums by key West Coast artists, the DIY operation is also the engine behind www.indiejazz.com, an essential online shop for musicians and imprints typically ignored by the mainstream jazz industry.
Despite the personal and financial challenges of keeping a small creative business afloat, Gauthier believes in the value of his enterprise. "Many of the artists I work with (including myself) wouldn't otherwise be able to put their music into the world and reach as many people without compromising the integrity of the product," he says. On the fringe outposts of forward-jazz, compromise is not an option.
Beyond the artistry, Gauthier's venture with Cryptogramophone is striking in its commitment to bridging California's two most visible music scenes: Los Angeles and San Francisco. Unlike in professional sports or hip-hop, there's little rivalry between these respective communities in the jazz world. Adventurous music fans have a rare opportunity to hear some of SoCal and NorCal's top innovators when four bands from Cryptogramophone's venerable roster appear in a pair of "Cryptonights" at Yoshi's next week.
Gauthier can't speak highly enough of the musicians with whom he'll be sharing the stage. A lifelong basketball buff, he compares with spooky precision the Cline wonder twins from the Southlands — Nels (guitar) and Alex (drums) — to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Translation: The six-string slinger is a virtuosic game changer and the drummer "a force in the middle, a graceful sonic architect." Among the Bay Area all-stars, pianist Myra Melford (a new addition to Mills College's faculty) gets props for being "a whirling dervish, a spiritual poet." Gauthier says she's like Lloyd "Prince of Midair" Free, while whirlwind drummer Scott Amendola embodies the spirit of Michael Jordan with his "pure joy of playing."
So where does this leave Gauthier among the sun-baked basketball analogies? When pressed, he likens himself to the famed Bulls and Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who brings together extraordinary talent and then essentially philosophizes his team toward NBA championships. Indeed, not unlike Jackson, Gauthier pulls world-class players into his circle as both a label head and an ensemble leader; he then lets the musicians' shared vision do its stuff. For example, when directing his five-piece Goatette, notably featuring the Cline brothers, Gauthier allows his bandmates plenty of room to find their own way into the music. "Rather than call a lot of timeouts and try to micromanage from the bench," he explains, "I give the guys a lot of freedom and let them figure things out for themselves." On the group's latest album, House of Return, this selfless attitude yields a dynamic energy that speaks to the wisdom of such an approach. The same can be said for Cryptogramophone, Gauthier's labor of love.