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Kurt Rosenwinkel: Emerging Brilliance

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I'd go into the studio and come away with the feeling that my sound had not been captured. For a long time I felt that I never got my sound on records. Then I realized that the vocal is actually part of the sound. I needed to discover that.
After nearly a decade in the trenches, Kurt Rosenwinkel is beginning to emerge as the next big thing in the world of jazz guitar. He has just released his second all-original Verve CD, The Next Step, a follow-up to last year's The Enemies of Energy. Two earlier standards albums, Intuit (Criss Cross, 1998) and the hard-to-find East Coast Love Affair (Fresh Sound, 1996) also attest to the scope of the young guitarist's jazz talents. All the while Rosenwinkel has maintained a busy schedule of sideman performances, live and on record, with Mark Turner, the Brian Blade Fellowship, Chris Cheek, Danilo Perez, Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band, and more. Contemporary jazz giants such as Joshua Redman and Pat Metheny are loudly singing Rosenwinkel's praises.

Even in a jazz scene packed with strong players, Rosenwinkel stands out for his emerging brilliance. Put simply, there is nothing obvious about his music. As a composer, he steadfastly avoids cliches and yet his melodies, even at their most complex, stick in one's memory. As a guitarist, he's developed a glistening, highly original sound that he often augments with his own wordless vocalizing. He can swing like a horn player but he plays the whole guitar—rapidly strumming a chord near the bridge, for instance, to achieve a crashing sonic effect. And unlike virtually all jazz guitarists, he has employed alternate tunings, which enable him to play lines that literally no one has played.

But perhaps most importantly, Rosenwinkel has an idiosyncratic musical personality that animates all his work, making it truly distinctive. Listen to "The Polish Song," an acoustic ballad from The Enemies of Energy that he sings in a fabricated nonsense language, and you'll hear it to maximum effect. Rosenwinkel's got something different going on in his head, something he didn't learn at Berklee, something that flows from his deepest self. Even when he's soloing at full-tilt, he embraces a kind of imperfection and risk-taking that marks only the greatest of players. A telling anecdote: When this writer met Rosenwinkel at his Brooklyn apartment for a lesson in mid 1999, the rising guitar star was moved to spin a few tracks from one of his favorite albums, Philosophy of the World (RCA) by The Shaggs, a late 60s band comprised of three sisters who could barely play or sing. Something about the primitive honesty of this cult classic speaks to Rosenwinkel, and this says something important about his art. At a time when jazz education has produced technical knowledge and ability in abundance, Rosenwinkel, despite his extensive schooling, keeps alive the spirit of the unschooled.

All About Jazz: You've just released The Next Step, but I'd like to talk for a minute about the previous record, The Enemies of Energy. You recorded it back in 1996 and it went unreleased until 2000. Can you take us through the events that led to the album's finally being picked up by Verve? And did such a belated release raise artistic issues for you?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: When we recorded Enemies I wasn't signed. But we knew we had to record it because the music needed to be manifested. We did it with the help of a lot of friends. The whole purpose was to have something of a high enough quality that it could exist in the major label realm. That was a very intentional thing on my part, and I'm glad I did it, because that's what happened. But it cost a lot more money to get that production quality.

I began shopping it around to labels, and finally, after a long time, I got signed to Impulse. And I made a record for Impulse with the same band. That was in 1998. Then Verve and Impulse merged. I got sent to Verve, and when I did, they saw that here's this artist who has two records: one that he did himself, one for Impulse. They looked at both those records and decided that they'd prefer to put out Enemies.

AAJ: Before the merger, did you present Impulse with Enemies and did they say no? Or was it more a matter of Impulse telling you to give them something from scratch?

KR: It was more the latter. They said, "We're interested in you as an artist, make us a record." Which was great, and we did it. So there's one in the can, unreleased.

AAJ: Will you release it at some point?

KR: I hope so, I really like it! And there's no artistic reason why it wasn't released.

AAJ: Do you see yourself doing another standards record like Intuit or East Coast Love Affair?

KR: Yeah. I'd really like to.

AAJ: Enemies is much more of a studio record than The Next Step, which is more along the lines of a live jazz album. What were the artistic impulses that led you to make such different albums?

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