Nels Cline may have been new to the Goatette, but he was no stranger to its members, with a shared past that included working with Alex, Jeff and Eric in Quartet Music, an acoustic ensemble formed in 1979. Von Essen’s impact on the Left Coast scene continues to be felt to this day, and remains one of the pillars upon which the label Cryptogramophone was built.
House of Return is Gauthier’s fifth release as a leader, and maintains a general conceptual design that began with 2001’s Mask and continued with 2006’s One and the Same: new compositions by Gauthier, one or more tunes from Von Essen’s bottomless wellspring of songs; and new pieces by the Cline brothers. As in his previous work, Gauthier shifts back and forth between acoustic and electric violins. One of the most interesting evolutions of the ensemble in recent years has been the tasteful use of electronically affected instruments in real time, both in improvisations, and within the context of the compositions.
From the first notes of House of Return’s opener, Von Essen’s noir-ish ballad, “Biko’s Blues” one can recognize the Goatette’s distinctive sound. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the Goatette is its ability to bring together a truly eclectic set of compositions and, through the encyclopedic reach of its members, produce an hour of music that, despite its stylistic diversity, possesses an underlying, pervasive and unmistakable group identity.
“Biko’s Blues” swings amiably, with solos fitting comfortably within a mainstream context that may surprise fans of some of the Goatette’s members’ more extreme extracurricular work. However, Gauthier’s “Friends of the Animals” makes it clear that greater freedom, albeit couched in a more complex compositional form (which includes a triple cannon), lies just around the bend. So, too, is more expansive soundscaping, with electronics creating a modernistic aural landscape that allows for Nels Cline’s more characteristically skronking solo, familiar to fans of the guitarist’s many Cryptogramophone releases. This sets the pace for one of Gauthier’s most memorable solos of the disc, propelled by Hamilton and Alex Cline’s powerful groove. Hamilton’s solo may be brief, but in less than half-a-minute demonstrates an unexpected virtuosity from a player whose full potential, it seems, is only beginning to be tapped.
Nels Cline’s “I.O.A.” may be more delicate, but once again it proves the Goatette’s ability to mold itself to any context, in this case a lyrical setting that ultimately opens itself up for a middle section that, like ‘70s and ‘80s fusion supergroup Weather Report, is built on a premise where everyone solos and nobody solos. Alex Cline and Hamilton maintain a solid pulse of varying dynamics, while Witham, Nels Cline and Gauthier flex improvisational acumen as concerned with texture as it is tonality. As ever, Nels Cline’s unparalleled versatility is all the more arresting for its never diluting the guitarist’s singular voice.
Gauthier’s episodic title track demonstrates the complexity that the Goatette can navigate with unerring ease. An opening improvised duet between Gauthier and Nels Cline incorporates elements of contemporary classicism and in-the-moment electronic wizardry, leading into a lengthy, idiosyncratic and percussively punctuated theme. An open piano trio section moves into a swinging melody in 7/4 (based on the previous theme) and a grooving solo from Witham - the consummate sideman whose own Cryptogramophone debut, 2007’s Spinning the Circle demonstrated his multifaceted ability that fans of the Goatette have known all along. Gauthier follows with a fiery solo that sits on the edge of abandon without ever quite falling over the precipice.
Alex Cline’s sole contribution to House of Return is an atmospheric tone poem that would easily fit on one of his own Cryptogramophone releases like 2001’s The Constant Flame. Cued melodies snake in and out of tumultuous free play and more electronic soundscaping, continuing the percussionist/composer’s evolving path into places at once beautiful and foreboding.
In 2006 Nels Cline paid tribute to the late pianist Andrew Hill on New Monastery: A View Into the Music of Andrew Hill, refracting Hill’s writing through the guitarist’s own personal prism. Here, “Satellites and Sideburns” pays homage to another recently departed legend, Weather Report co-founder/keyboardist/composer Joe Zawinul. Cline manages to do what no other Zawinul or Weather Report tribute has done: combine the angular improvisational aspects of the group’s early 1970s emergence with the propulsive, booty-shaking grooves of its latter days. Cline, Gauthier, and Witham apply their own electronic textures to give a new spin on Zawinul’s orchestrated synth work. The references to Weather Report are many, including a serpentine unison line that, doubled by violin and bass, mirrors many of Zawinul’s most memorable melodies.
Ending as it began with another Von Essen composition, this one entitled “Dissolution,” Gauthier continues to champion the late bassist’s underappreciated compositional depth. Nels Cline plays acoustic 12-string guitar on a piece that harkens back to the days of Quartet Music. Dark improvised passages move into a rubato composed section to create a poignant and deeply evocative ending to the Goatette’s most inspired and stylistically uncategorizable album to date.
The Jeff Gauthier Goatette may be a group of leaders, each with their own predilections, but as with its earlier albums, House of Return proves that context drives the creation of a sound demonstrative of the players’ styles while, at the same time, remaining patently unique. Despite the Goatette containing three-quarters of Quartet Music, and its commitment to bringing Von Essen’s music to light, when combined with Witham and Hamilton it’s an altogether different collective. Combining a rich electro/acoustic palette with compositions ranging from sketch-like to through-composed and a liberal approach to interpretation and collective improvisation, House of Return is, paradoxically, the Goatette’s most profoundly lyrical and viscerally exciting record yet.