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Our Fearless Leader Looks Back

From Cryptogramophone's upcoming Assemblage 1998-2008: A Ten Year Retrospective:

Jazz improvisation is the art of taking musical risks. Think where jazz would be without feisty little labels willing to take risks on creative musicians. But how much longer can independent labels continue to take risks while producing artifacts fewer and fewer people want to buy? Now that musicians can record in their living rooms and download music to their toasters, do we really need companies that produce high quality recordings on old-fashioned CDs, in artsy-fartsy packages?


Cryptogramophone is not alone in the world of creative jazz. Nine Winds and Nimbus West have documented the West Coast new music scene for almost 30 years. Atavistic, Aum Fidelity, Between the Lines, Black Saint/Soulnote, Cuneiform, ECM, Evander, Hat Hut, Leo, pfMentum, Omnitone, PI, Thirsty Ear, Tzadik, and Winter & Winter (to name only a few) continue to produce great recordings and have much larger catalogs than we do. Cryptogramophone represents only part of a much greater scene. Yet, here we are, tooting our own horn with this vastly overblown ten-year retrospective.


The event that gave birth to Cryptogramophone was the 1997 death of my friend and colleague, the brilliant bass player and composer Eric von Essen [pictured above], who left behind over 120 mostly unrecorded compositions. Guitarist Nels Cline [pictured below with Devin Sarno], drummer Alex Cline, and I had played with Eric for almost 15 years in the chamber-jazz ensemble Quartet Music. As a way to work through our feelings and document his music, some of us decided to record three volumes of his compositions featuring the community of musicians that he loved. Since I couldn’t find a label crazy enough to put out these volumes, I started Cryptogramophone.


After I decided to start the label, I asked an old friend who is a respected jazz producer if he had any advice. Here was his reply: “Become a heroin addict instead. You’ll have more fun, spend less money, and hang out with more interesting people.” After considering the practicality of this advice, I came to appreciate the twisted wisdom behind it. People who enter the record business because they love music are bound to be disappointed, because they find themselves in a world that shows little or no respect for musicianship or art. People who get into it because they want to make money are simply misguided. This leaves only the stubborn and the obsessed, who survive only because they don’t know how to quit.

Bennie Maupin

Looking back, with over 40 titles in the 2008 catalog, it seems like sheer madness to have embarked on such a massive undertaking without anything resembling a game plan. No right-minded business consultant or grief counselor would have recommended it.

Myra Melford

Some critics have called Cryptogramophone a “West Coast” label. While it’s true that Crypto began in Los Angeles by documenting a community of left-coast/left-leaning musicians, time has given us all a geography lesson. Myra Melford and Mark Dresser started out as bastions of the New York “Downtown” scene before moving to the West Coast. Jenny Scheinman started out in the Bay Area before moving to New York. Erik Friedlander still lives in New York. Bennie Maupin came up in Detroit and New York but now lives in Los Angeles. Nels Cline still lives in LA but his career is truly international in scope. Don Preston [pictured below] is quite likely from another planet. Is there something about this music that carries on the storied tradition of “West Coast Jazz? Damned if I know.


Perhaps what most distinguishes Cryptogramophone from the field is our dedication–our dedication to a vision in music, to a community of musicians, to quality in recording and artistic design, and to the audience that supports our work–not to mention our dedication to taking risks.

Assemblage 1998-2008 was intended as a celebration–a way of looking back and looking forward at the same time. But there’s a distinct possibility that it’s really just an unconscious cry for help–the last gasp of a dying breed. Will there be the need for a label such as Cryptogramophone in 2018? Will the music that seemed so important to us in 1998 still seem compelling? Will we still be taking risks?

Check back with us in ten years.


Jeff Gauthier, January 2008
Los Angeles, CA

Comments (1)


Nice post, filled with the intelligence and thoughfulness that characterize the label's general enterprise. Crypto is part of the artistic continuum (for however long it lasts, and I hope it lasts for another 10 years) that keeps us human--and humane.

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