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Kurt Rosenwinkel: Caipirinhas and Constellations

Geno Thackara By

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I'm an optimist. I believe in people and I believe in music, and so we're just going out and doing it. —Kurt Rosenwinkel
"It's the busiest I've ever been," Kurt Rosenwinkel happily declares during a rare week of down time at home in Berlin between tour legs. This would seem like quite a statement for someone established as a jack of many trades—luminary guitarist, music teacher, technological experimentalist and bandleader in several genre-hopping ensembles. These recent months have seen him further expanding his resume to include lead singer, lyricist and label boss. He describes it as a crazy time, but couldn't be more excited about the ways things have been converging (some of them a long while in coming).

The year kicked off with the release of his Brazilian-tinged fusion opus Caipi (Heartcore, 2017), an endeavor that took a decade taking shape and has been breezily knocking listeners' expectations sideways. He's formed a new band around that concept and taken it through the States, Japan and China, alternating with a couple brief jaunts through Europe with a different trio. After this break will come a return to Canada with plans for some studio work and more American dates further on, making room along the way for a couple Standards Trio gigs and a sit-in with The Bad Plus at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Busy indeed, but Rosenwinkel says it's "in the best way possible."

"Sometimes it takes a while for those big changes to sort of culminate, you know," he muses in describing these shifts, including his recent retirement from teaching to put more energy into the newly-launched Heartcore Records. "It's a marvel to see how life just forms itself—it makes crystals in caves and stuff, and it does that to your life too. There was something very crystalline about it, the way my life changed in pretty much every fundamental way at the same time about a year ago. So it was a real renewal and an exciting rededication to the most deeply rooted thing that I can do right now. I'm very fortunate that things arranged themselves for me to be able to do it." Partly it's fortune, but clearly it's also a matter of having patience and helping things unfold at the right pace.

It's pretty apt that the label is named after his early album Heartcore (Verve, 2003), which made a defining step in the guitarist's early evolution, even while some listeners had no idea how to regard its blend of jazz and electronics. Rosenwinkel seems to be having better luck this time around—if nothing else, his listeners should know not to get too tied to expectations by now.

"I know there'll be people who think they don't really want to accept [something unexpected], but you know, you get used to it," he says with a quiet laugh. "Almost everything I've done has been met with that kind of reaction. When I came out with Heartcore, everybody fucking hated it. Two-star reviews across the board, no gigs, nothing. With hindsight it would probably be a surprise for some people to hear that, the way that album is considered now. So it's nothing new to me to have that kind of reaction. But we've had some incredible responses for Caipi.

"If I had done another quartet jazz album, there'd be people saying, 'why doesn't he do something new?' So, you know, you can't please everybody. And I feel like people, in their initial reactions to things, are much more extreme than after the dust settles and they can get perspective." If something took so long to present itself to the artist, it's no surprise that it demands some openness and attention from the rest of us as well.

Rosenwinkel notes a similar dynamic with this newest release, even if the time frame is somewhat different. " [Heartcore] took two and a half years, and I remember feeling aghast at how long it was taking," he recalls. "But that one had money from a record company and a deadline that kept getting pushed back, so I had a real keen sense of expectation on finishing. Caipi didn't have any demands placed on it, externally, at all. For the first half of its life, I didn't even know that it was going to be a record. It was just songs that were kind of formulating in my studio. And then when I realized that it was an album of music, then I was working on it and thinking about it as such—but it was still happening alongside other albums that I was doing, more on the surface.

"There'd be projects where you would just say, 'hey, let's make a big-band record'—okay, boom, there it is. 'Hey, why don't you make a record of all these songs that you have for quartet?' I'd say, 'oh yeah, that's easy, I've got two albums' worth of songs just sitting here and I've got a band and, sure, why not?' And there were also sort of secondary thoughts in my heart of hearts, because I was secretly thinking about Caipi all during that time. Not to say that I didn't put everything into those albums, but I always knew there was this big whale that was swimming under the ocean waiting to come up."

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