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Kurt Rosenwinkel: Latitude

John Kelman By

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For me what [music] is all about is containing some kind of fascination, or mood, or some kind of aesthetic quality that's pleasing to the ear. I'm only a conceptualist insofar as it translates to actual sound. —Kurt Rosenwinkel
Of the new wave of players that has emerged in the past decade including Adam Rogers, Jacob Young and Jeff Parker, the one most seen to be representing the future of jazz guitar is Kurt Rosenwinkel—a player who is rightfully taking his place alongside other significant contemporary figures like Pat Metheny, John Scofield, John Abercrombie and Bill Frisell. While his body of work as a leader is only beginning to develop, he's worked with a cross-generational who's who of players including drummer Paul Motian, vibraphonist Gary Burton, saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Brian Blade and trumpeter Tim Hagans.

And in a time where major labels appear fixated on finding the next big thing Rosenwinkel has, for the past five years, maintained the kind of relationship with Verve Records that most artists only dream about. With four releases since '00 ranging from the more strictly-composed The Enemies of Energy and the electronica Heartcore to two albums that are decidedly more mainstream—The Next Step and this year's Deep Song—but all equally representing his diversified interests and distinctive emergent voice, Rosenwinkel has had an almost unprecedented (at least in these times) latitude for a young, less-established artist on a label more closely associated with legacy artists including Wayne Shorter and John Scofield as well as mega-sellers like Diana Krall. Clearly Verve recognize Rosenwinkel's potential; and with Deep Song charting on Jazzweek's Radio Chart since its release in March, so, apparently, are an increasing number of fans.

Chapter Index

Beginnings
Gary Burton and Paul Motian—Formative Experiences
East Coast Love Affair and Intuit
The Enemies of Energy, the Lost Album and Signing with Verve
The Next Step and Heartcore
Sound and Musical Conception
Deep Song
Future Songs
Kurt Rosenwinkel Discography


Beginnings

Rosenwinkel grew up in Philadelphia, and came from a musical family although not, by any means, with any great exposure to jazz. "My mother and father both play piano," says Rosenwinkel. "My mother is classically trained, she was actually studying to be a classical pianist—a concert pianist—while my father is a gifted improviser and also classically trained, but less so than my mother. So there was a lot of music going on in my family. Growing up I played piano, had a band with my best friend Gordon and we discovered music and kept playing together all through our high school years. When I was about twelve I got into guitar, after hearing the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's.

"There wasn't really jazz going on in my house," Rosenwinkel continues, "I discovered it through the radio in early high school. Philly has a great jazz scene and it has a great jazz radio station, WRTI, so I used to listen to that all the time. Some of my fellow students were into jazz so that's how I got into it. And there was a weekly jam session at this neighbourhood club called the Blue Note—which isn't affiliated in any way with any of the other Blue Notes. It was just a neighbourhood club and they had a weekly jam session with some really great older players there who really presided over this Monday night jam session. There was a real community spirit kind of thing and from going to that I really grew to love and appreciate the community spirit of jazz.

"After traveling the world and seeing so many different places," concludes Rosenwinkel, "places where people love music but don't have that kind of experience, I look back and I feel really grateful that I happened to be where I was, because that kind of thing is really rare and it's getting rarer and rarer all the time. I really value and cherish the fact that I had the opportunity to be a part of that oral jazz tradition; it was great."


Gary Burton and Paul Motian—Formative Experiences

Rosenwinkel would ultimately end up studying at Boston's Berklee School of Music, but dropped out in '92 when Gary Burton asked him to join his band. "Gary's band," Rosenwinkel explains, "was the first really professional sideman gig that I had—it was the first international touring experience, it was the first kind of high profile scenario, so I really felt that it was a big break. It was a great experience from a professional point of view in terms of gaining experience and an entry into the world of what it means to be a jazz musician, what life is like as a jazz musician. Gary's a master musician, so listening to him play his solo pieces every night was the most musically inspiring experience for me in that band. He's a true master of the vibraphone."

The same year, Rosenwinkel joined drummer Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band, beginning a relationship that, as opposed to his relatively short stay with Burton, would last for the next decade. "Paul's totally different," Rosenwinkel says. "In Gary's band the parameters of the music were very specific, very specified, very controlled. In Paul's band some of them were set; there were some basic premises, like we're going to play bebop tunes, and this is going to be the arrangement—we're going to play the head and I'd take a chorus and Brad [Shepik, guitarist] would take two choruses and Josh [Redman, saxophonist] would take half a chorus. But beyond that there wasn't any musical guidance. So they had very different approaches as bandleaders. The Electric Bebop Band was a great experience playing with Paul, being alongside his incredible feeling of swing and rhythm. That was, for me, what I think I got the most out of it musically—just internalizing his feel on the drums and for music as a whole. That's what I come away with after having some perspective on it and years have gone by, that's really what I'm left with—a distillation of the entire experience for me was about absorbing his time feel and his feel for music."


East Coast Love Affair and Intuit

Concurrent with his work with Motian, Rosenwinkel was part of a nascent New York scene that included artists like pianist Brad Mehldau, saxophonist Mark Turner, bassists Ben Street, Larry Grenadier and Avishai Cohen, and drummers Jeff Ballard and Jorge Rossy. Regular gigs at Small's helped Rosenwinkel to solidify his own conception, both in terms of his musical approach and in terms of his tone. What is remarkable about hearing his first CD, East Coast Love Affair—a live album recorded at Small's—is that he already had a firm grasp on the things that would be important to him in terms of developing a distinctive musical voice and immediately recognizable tone.

East Coast Love Affair was released on the Spanish Fresh Sound New Talent label—an imprint that has introduced a number of now-significant artists, including Mehldau and The Bad Plus. "I wasn't even thinking about any kind of long term strategy, in terms of kinds of albums I wanted to make," says Rosenwinkel. "At the time I was in New York, living hand to mouth and developing music with my friends. I happened to be doing a lot of sessions with Jorge Rossy—I've known him for years. We were doing a lot of jam sessions at each others' houses and in the New York scene.

"Jorge, is from Barcelona," continues Rosenwinkel, "and the Fresh Sound label is from Barcelona as well. So when Jordi Pujol, the owner of Fresh Sound wanted to start this label New Talent, he contacted Jorge, who he knew had all these contacts in New York, and he hired Jorge to be the A&R [Artists and Repertoire] person. So all of the first records on Fresh Sound were basically proposed by Jorge; just taking advantage of all the different scenes that he was aware of going on in New York at the time. One of those involved me and the music that we were playing, which was just basically playing tunes at sessions. Jorge and I had a nice hook-up as a trio with Avishai [Cohen, bassist], and so at the time the idea came to make a record that was what we were doing musically. We just felt like we wanted to do that, and so I didn't really think of it in terms of any kind of planning; it was simply an opportunity and we took it."

East Coast Love Affair, released in '97, and Rosenwinkel's next album—Intuit, released on Gerry Teekens' Criss Cross label in '98, were both essentially standards records. Rosenwinkel views playing standards and working on original material—like sessions he recorded for Chris Potter's '98 release Vertigo and Brian Blade Fellowship's '00 album, Perceptual, to be different aspects of the same continuum. "I think, in terms of the feeling I want to get to, it's the same thing," Rosenwinkel explains, "but in terms of the actual music it's very different. I have an awareness of my own relationship to standards that has evolved over the years, and it's an important part of being a jazz musician. It's a good backdrop to really see how your playing is, it's almost this sort of neutral stylistic context where you can discover what kind of player you are, what the qualities of your playing are. With original music, it's so much more about the mood of the tune as a composition; it already has this mood that you're trying to get inside of, and play from the centre of, so it's very different in terms of approach. With my tunes, for example, each song has its own real identity, so in that sense they're not sketches—skeletal vehicles like standards. The best music that comes from my writing is when the band is just playing the tune, in the most essential way possible. And then that unlocks all the doors to interaction and improvisation. So the approach to the two is very different. It's kind of like looking at the same thing from a different angle."


The Enemies of Energy, the Lost Album and Signing with Verve

While Rosenwinkel's first two releases concentrated on the standards repertoire, he was also honing his skills as a composer and, in fact, went into the studio only a few months after the recording of East Coast Love Affair with another of his bands—Mark Turner, Ben Street, Jeff Ballard and keyboardist Scott Kinsey—to record what would eventually become his first release for Verve in '00, The Enemies of Energy.

But in the intervening years between that recording and his signing with Verve, Rosenwinkel was, in fact, signed to Impulse!, recording another entire album that ultimately got lost in the label shuffle that saw Impulse! picked up by Universal and himself moved over to Verve. "That record was called Under it All," Rosenwinkel says, "and my inspiration for that record was all the blueprints—all of the technical information and blueprints beneath everything we use on a day-to-day basis. My father's an architect and I've always been fascinated by architectural drawings. During the time we recorded Under It All my room was just covered wall-to-wall with architectural drawings. I didn't know what any of the symbols meant—I couldn't interpret them literally—but to me the specificity of all of the blueprints was inspiring to me, and yet was totally abstract because I didn't know how to interpret them; but I loved the idea of specificity and abstractness. And that, of course, is really what's underlying music—it's very specific but at the same time totally abstract.

And so that was my inspiration for the concept of the record," Rosenwinkel continues, "which was just a personal aesthetic concept of my own. I made the record with the same people as on Enemies—Jeff, Ben, Mark and Scott—and we recorded it, we loved it and then the merger happened and I got sent to Verve. Verve saw that I had this record that I had just made and I also had this record that I had made a couple of years before, and they said that they wanted to put out the one that I had made before, which became The Enemies of Energy. That was cool for me, because I had done that one all by myself, had raised the money and was in debt to people for making it. So Verve bought it from me and that was good—I was able to get paid and pay everybody back for it.

"Musically the two records are pretty closely related," continues Rosenwinkel, "in that they are both very compositional, very orchestrated, they have some production elements—although Enemies has some post production and Under It All doesn't—we played it all live. But one of the biggest differences, and I think this is one of the reasons Verve didn't want to put it out, on Under It All I was using a guitar synthesizer—not on the whole thing, but on some of it, and they weren't into that. They really wanted to put me forward as a guitarist and I think that they had a record that was very compositional and I wasn't featuring myself as a guitarist hardly at all. And when I was featured I was playing guitar synthesizer, so they didn't really see, from a marketing standpoint, that it would represent the new guitarist, Kurt Rosenwinkel.

"I don't really care if Under It All ever gets released," Rosenwinkel concludes. Copies are floating around here and there, but my work is done. I would feel conflicted if I hadn't had the chance to finish it; but having finished it, it's totally mastered it's all there—I don't really feel the necessity to see it released. I've finished it, I've done it, and I've completed what I had to do. So whatever happens in its life, I wish it all the best—and I'm sure it'll come out sometime in some way. It's already out as far as I'm concerned in that if anybody really wants to get it they can find it."
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