Kurt Rosenwinkel: New Creative Roads

R.J. DeLuke By

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For me, music is something that I find, as opposed to something I know that I can make on demand.
Two and a half years may seem like a long time to work on one recording project, but not when there's singleness of purpose, a sense of real creation and a desire to get everything in the studio done just right. That's just what guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel did for his third release on Verve, Heartcore .

"The reason why I took so long to do it was that my goal was to be able to go to someone's house, put the CD on, sit back, and play the whole record and not once think to myself, 'Oh, that has to be different. It needs a guitar there, or this needs to be a little louder or that has to be a little softer,'" he says with a soft laugh.

What's on the record is not hardcore jazz. It's influenced by hip-hop - produced by Q-Tip (Kamaal Fareed, once of A Tribe Called Quest) — and other music, which was all part of this outstanding guitarist's upbringing and culture. But it is not a hip-hop record. It has a lyrical and melodic flow. It contains dreamlike ballads ("Your Vision" and "Interlude") and many of the tunes have an exotic feel. Even though he cut his teeth in Philadelphia's jazz scene and has played with the likes of Gary Burton, Joe Henderson, Paul Motian and Joe Lovano, it's not everything that Rosenwinkel is about. The essence of jazz is there - improvisation and creation always at the spirit of his playing - but the studio this time was one of his main instruments, where he also provided keyboard work and drum programming. All the tunes are Rosenwinkel originals.

"It was a flowering of a seed that was already there. I grew up in Philly. I'm 33 years old so when hip-hop started to be innovating, I was digging it from its inception. I would never categorize myself as exclusive, straight ahead jazz. In terms of my own music, I've been writing since I was 9 years old and it's gone through lots of different changes and lots of different expressions, lots of modes. As a composer I have a very free, open approach to composition," he says.

"If I sit down at the piano, something will come out and it will be somehow related to the nature of the piano, what I find in it. And if I write on the guitar, the same thing is true. And if I play the drums, that's true. And if I use the studio - the studio is such an incredible tool for the imagination. Because you don't have to just play one instrument to communicate your concept to other instrumentalists. You can actually do everything yourself and pursue the music in a sort of a more solitary way, but really plum the depths of your own visualization and imagination. It was kind of like writing a novel, as opposed to having a really good conversation."

While some jazz purists, young and old, may now like the idea of a heavily produced studio piece, Rosenwinkel disregards any notion that it is somehow a lesser approach. It's just different.

"To be afraid of a method, I don't really see the solidity in that, in and of itself. For me, the way I approach music, there is no formula. Everything is an adventure in music. There's certainly a lot of depth of history that you can endlessly learn from in terms if improvising on your instrument and very, very deep and powerful lessons about playing with other people that is essentially at the root of jazz. The fear might be that those kind of mythical or sacred lessons couldn't be learned in this kind of method. And that's true. But that's not the case with me. I have a history in both approaches, so I'm not afraid of it.

"There are also places that you can get to by using studio that you cannot get to by using a band, in terms of creating sound. I'm making a record, so I'm making this environment for someone to sit down and put on a CD and just be enveloped in the sound. For me, whatever tool I can use to make that experience more powerful for the listener, I'm going to use it. Because I don't have the conceit to assume that I can always do that in every way. For me, music is something that I find, as opposed to something I know that I can make on demand."

Preparing for other types of recordings, he says, with more group interplay is a difficult thing, even if it doesn't seem that way. It takes tremendous focus from everyone involved and can be very satisfying. But it's not the be all and end all of processes. "No matter how you do it, what's going to make a good or bad record is really the clarity of visualization in the participants' minds. And how is that connected with everything in a person's life. It's not just playing the drums or playing a swing beat. It's a music that touches to the core of your being. When it's good, that's what will make it good. That makes the difference. That's a deep thing. Or if it's just me in my studio, it's me working for almost two and a half years to really craft every single moment so that it really expresses every nuance and subtlety that I feel to convey. That's the great thing about doing the record the way I did it. You can really be sure that you're really saying what you want to say. Like a novel."

Rosenwinkel knew at the age of 8 that music was going to be his calling and he switched from playing the piano to the guitar at age 12 "when I realized I couldn't really play hard rock on the piano," he chuckles. " I couldn't kick on the distortion pedal." He played in bands throughout high school, often putting on shows in the neighborhood, which included going door-to-door to sell tickets. "We would rehearse every day. We were really serious as kids."

The jazz thing came gradually.

"I wasn't born and bred on jazz music. I grew up in Philly and it's in Philly, so it's in me. I went to jam sessions where I didn't even know how lucky I was to be participating in that kind of phenomenon. It's so rare and almost non-existent these days. Even in the States. On a worldwide scale I realized, after I left Philly, how lucky I was to participate in these kinds of jam sessions. It was a community-type feeling. Blues roots jazz, playing standards but lifting them off the ground. Community spirit like I've never felt before. It was the closest thing that I've experienced to going to church and having that be a really meaningful experience. To have that foundation, a feeling of what jazz means to me, was instilled in those jam sessions.

"This one place, it was an all black neighborhood and mostly black people, but anyone who walked in the door was totally welcome. A lot of different people ended up there and I was one of them and it was real family' This experience gave me a really deep feeling and conviction about what jazz means at its roots. So I am a jazz guy in that sense, but only in that sense and my love for the music. But it's not limited to that at all. Music has so many expressions and jazz is one of them. And it's a big part of where I come from and it's the music that I've had an adventure through and always will. There's a lot of great qualities of other music that I love too."

After gigging around Philly, Rosenwinkel went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, broadening his circle of contacts. " I came to the attention of Gary Burton. That was my first international touring experience. At that time Bill Frisell recommended me to Paul Motian and I joined Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band. Bill had seen me play with this band I was in Boston. I went to Italy the year before and ended up opening for Bill Frisell in 1989."

Rosenwinkel joined Burton's band and Motian's band and moved to New York in 1991. "I started playing at Small's with Ben [Street], Jeff [Ballard] and Mark [Turner]. We played there for years and years. A lot of my friends became successful with record contracts. Brad Mehldau. Josh Redman. A lot of people. Finally, some record people came down and saw our band and I signed to Impulse, got transferred to Verve. I just came out with my third record on Verve and here I am."

That "here I am" is changing soon for Rosenwinkel, who was relocating to Switzerland at the time of this mid-November interview. His wife — expecting a child — is Swiss, but part of the reason is disillusionment with the United States and how society leaves little room these days for artists. The music industry is taking its lumps in recent years, but Rosenwinkel, like many other musicians, see it as a societal problem.

The guitarist is soft spoken, but expressive and direct. "I think America is in a repressive psychotic dream. This country is in self delusion," he says. "It's an American mentality to think that things can just expand and get bigger, forever, indefinitely. We live in a land of inexhaustible resources. And that's an immature mentality, because it's just wrong. It's like a kid thinking they're immortal. You're not. There isn't just inexhaustible resources. How big does an SUV have to be? What do you do when you've reached the limit? It's like a psychosis, because it's a denial of : what do you do when you get to the limit? You have to look back to yourself to ask yourself: I've reached the end of quantity, now what about quality? And that's a much deeper and tougher question."

Artists are not reflecting the society, he feels. Instead, they " one of the sources that can actually show a society where it needs to be' I think artists are in conflict with society, not a reflection of society. Real artists. By following idealism or truth can be a teacher of society. Someone who has the power to bring meaning into life in a public way."

Like it is with so many musicians, the club scene isn't drawing any rave reviews from this guitarist.

"It's really fucked up. It's a larger context for me. It's American society and what that means. What is that? People aren't going out. People aren't going to clubs. Some people are. But it's more the fault of the business climate. It's so hard to make things work financially. It's hard to get a gig. You can't even struggle in New York anymore. You have to be part of the system or not. It's getting more black and white. Either you're a part of it, or not. If you're not, you're even more disenfranchised. I think that's the stratification of society, which is just getting worse and worse."

All that said, Rosenwinkel is still expecting to get steady work with the musicians he has had collaborations with. Although his address is changing, "the cool thing about going over there is that I don't have to really change that much. I'm in a good position where I can solidify that position more, which is being able to just play with the musicians that I'm already playing with now. Fly from a different airport and come back to a different airport. I'll have to miss out on the occasional 55Bar gig or the occasional Fat Cat gig [in New York], but everything else, my presence will effectively be the same. So I'm looking forward to that.

"Also, I'm happy about the fact that career-wise, it isn't really changing that much. In a strange way, it actually might make it better for me. Just the natural phenomenon of when you change something, you create the possibility for other things in your life to progress. If there's one thing in your life that's blocking you in a certain way, it spreads over into other problem that aren't even associated with that. Your whole life is blocked. In order to progress in these other areas that aren't even related to that thing, you have to deal with that thing and get past the block And by doing that, it opens up everything else."

He's still, listening, learning and growing as a musician and is influenced not only by the past, but those he hears today.

"[Pat] Metheny, man. He's the king. I don't really go for his recorded stuff these days, but I saw him live and I was really happy because he reestablished himself in my pantheon. His natural melodicism is so free and just inspiring," says Rosenwinkel, who also counts Frisell among his heroes.

"I've been playing with this drummer, Ollie Jackson. He's having a huge impact on me. He played with Wynton. I played with him last weekend at Fat Cat. We played three nights. Me and Josh Redman and Ollie Jackson and Aaron Goldberg and Joe Martin. It was just incredible. Ollie Jackson is just such a high and rooted, peaceful, grooving musician. Unbelievable. He's really inspiring me. Also Josh. We were playing my music and brings these songs that are complex harmonically, and faster songs that move a lot of places quickly, a lot of changes, difficult stuff - he builds these things like a pot of boiling water and it just boils over. They become like anthems. He can turn the most dense harmonic slalom into an anthem of singing music. It's incredible. I've been floored by those guys in my recent musical experience."

Rosenwinkel is content with a new turn in life and new musical roads ahead. "My life is going great' The adventure continues. It doesn't stop."

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