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Interviews

Kurt Rosenwinkel: Emerging Brilliance

By Published: May 16, 2006

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?

KR: It's very simple, a natural progression. It's how we grew as a band. This is the nature of the music that we're playing now. That's not to say that in the future we won't make another more studio-oriented record. The making of The Next Step wasn't really a matter of responding to the last one in any way. It's a four-year development between the two, and it brought us toward a more live sound.

AAJ: Your quartet has played not only under your name, but also occasionally under Mark Turner's name as well, no?

KR: Sort of. There are distinctions. Mark's band is now me, Nasheet Waits [drums], and Reid Anderson [bass]. My band is Mark, Ben Street [bass], and Jeff Ballard [drums]. The reason why my name and Mark's have appeared interchangeably at times is that last year, we launched a joint band so we could present an attractive option for promoters. Since neither of us have the kind of star power to command some of the bookings we're going for, we decided to join forces so we could tour. We got tour support from both Verve and Mark's label, Warner Bros., which was a first. Musically it was totally fine, because our musics have a lot of simpatico.

AAJ: But what I'm referring to is when Mark played the Vanguard back in mid 1999, when he used your band, with Street and Ballard. Was that part of the "joining forces" that you just mentioned?

KR: Not exactly. That actually presented a lot of problems, because it showed Mark that he really needed to define his own group. At that time he was looking for it and wasn't finding it. So for that engagement at the Vanguard, he decided to try it with my band. It worked in theory but not in practice. Or maybe the opposite [laughs]. Now we know we each need to have our own groups.

AAJ: Your vocalizations seem to be more and more audible on the recordings you make and appear on. Verve's press release for The Next Step goes so far as to state that the vocalizations are an integral part of your sound. Do you see it that way? Are you consciously featuring your vocals, or are you simply singing your phrases the way many other players do?

KR: It started as a natural thing, like lots of players do, as you said. But 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. So I began to be more conscious of it and bring it out more. I started using a microphone on gigs, really exploring it as a possibility. In the last several years I've started to work with it in the studio. So it's very deliberate. It's miked in the studio and very carefully mixed, because it has to be at that point between conscious and subconscious.

AAJ: Do you work on your singing, or is it something that you just allow to develop, as your improvising on the guitar develops?

KR: Sometimes I try to exercise my voice a little bit if I know I'm going to be singing. I might focus on my voice just a bit, to warm up. I don't know any singer-type warm-ups. I just try to sing more strongly and go from the bottom register of the guitar to the top, going chromatically.

AAJ: The most famous example of simultaneous playing and singing is George Benson, but he's coming more from a traditional scat-singing concept. Your style is very different, no?

KR: He's an actual vocalist, and I'm not. With Benson there's actually two things going on, voice and guitar, both totally central. With me the vocal is more just a part of the guitar sound I'm going for.

AAJ: You've been working with alternate tunings for guitar, and you've said that often in an alternate tuning you don't know what chords and notes you're playing. What kinds of notational challenges does this pose when you bring an alternate tuning piece to your band?

KR: It's a minor technical problem. I just use a tuner to figure out what note I'm playing, and write it down, and go from there.


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