Now this is how it should be done! In ten short years, Jeff Gauthier's Cryptogramophone has become a major force for releasing state-of-the-art, world-class recordings by creative musicians from America and Europe in startlingly beautiful packages. Its roster of releases includes titles by Myra Melford, Bennie Maupin, Nels Cline, Jeff Gauthier, David Witham, Mark Dresser, Jenny Scheinman, Don Preston, Alex Cline, Scott Amendola, Alan Pasqua, and Erik Friedlander. And while looking at the names above you would rightly get an idea that Cryptogramophone issues some outside titles; they have done recordings that simply defy categorization and are very accessible in terms of their warmth, immediacy, and the sheer excellence their performances. To mark their first decade they've issued a stellar three-disc collection -- two CDs and one DVD -- that sells for the price of a single-CD called Assemblage 1998-2008. The two audio discs are chock-full of performances from their catalog. The listener is brought into the Crypto M.O. early on. The label was begun with the first of three volumes of compositions by the late bassist Eric Von Essen, a bandmate of Gauthier's and the Cline brothers. In other words, the label was created as a tribute to a friend to be sure, but also to showcase the music of an extremely gifted composer no one knew about outside of a very small circle. "Silvana" is simply gorgeous and a fitting entryway. Other highlights of the first disc include a reading of Carla Bley's "Walking Batteriewoman," by the Don Preston Trio, Alex Cline's "Sonnet 9,"and Gauthier's own "Solflicka." Disc two's highlights include "Escondido" from Maupin's Early Reflections album (which features a cast of all Polish musicians he'd been working with for a couple of years), Scott Amendola's "Buffalo Bird Woman," and Todd Sickafoose's "Future Flora," as well as work by Scheinman, Melford, and the Nels Cline Singers. This stuff is all top-flight. The liner notes by Gauthier offer a subjective but engaging history of the label as well.
The real treat here is the DVD. To begin, there is an hour-long program documenting the recording and performance of Nels Cline's brilliant New Monastery: A View Into the Music of Andrew Hill. This set, released in 2006, was recorded while Hill was still very much alive. The video contains documentary footage in the studio and interviews with Cline, trumpeter Bobby Bradford, and Andrea Parkins. In addition to the studio footage there is performance footage from the band in playing the album in New York and Los Angeles -- both gigs are just kinetic and wildly inspired. Next up is a 20-minute selection from Bennie Maupin in Poland featuring the quartet he recorded Early Reflections with during a live gig at a concert hall in 2007: pianist Michal Tokaj, bassist Michal Baransky, and drummer Lukasz Zyta offer a truly empathic understanding of all the spaces and subtleties in Maupin's music. They are joined for one selection by the wonderful vocalist Hania Chowaniec-Rybka, who also appears on the album. The last ten minutes of the DVD combine an artfully done video by Carole Kim and live-in-the-studio footage of Alex Cline, Gauthier, and guitarist G.E. Stinson while recording Cline's album, The Other Shore in 2002. The juxtaposition of her poetically arresting images and the studio footage is art in and of itself. The music? Alex Cline's records thus far have all been pure gold aesthetically. They may be overshadowed by the presence of his guitar-slinging brother who is everywhere at once, but his blend of fiery and restrained improvisation, jazz's innovation and discipline, rock dynamics, and Eastern modalities are singular. In sum, this is a dynamite package for the DVD alone, and you get a very generous look at one of the finer independent labels on the scene. Assemblage 1998-2008 cannot be recommended highly enough.