Broadly acknowledged as one of jazz's foremost artists, Kurt Rosenwinkel has established a reputation as an innovator and constant seeker on the guitar. He has carved out a unique sound over many years of experiment and refinement and today commands respect for his singular voice as a player and bandleader.
As a follow-up to the successful double live album The Remedy (ArtistShare, 2008), Rosenwinkel recently released Reflections (Wommusic, 2009), an elegant collection of standards. Rosenwinkel spoke about this latest endeavor from Berlin, the city he now calls home.
Growing Up Philadelphia
All About Jazz: Let's start with some background. You grew up in Philadelphia. How did you first get into music?
Kurt Rosenwinkel: I played my tennis racket along to Peter Frampton. Then went to the piano and made up songs.
AAJ: Were you attracted to jazz from the beginning? How did it develop?
KR: I became interested in jazz in high school, through the talented other students who were into it, and through my friend David Brodie, who is still a jazz bassist in Philadelphia. We listened to a lot of music and his father was friends with a lot of jazz musicians and would host jam sessions at his house.
Before I was in the picture, apparently, Philly Joe Jones used to come over and hang out there too. Then I started going to jam sessions on Mondays at a neighborhood club called the Blue Note, where Tony Williams (the alto saxophonist), Eddie Greene, Sid Simmons, Tyrone Browne, Al Jackson, Mike Boone, and others used to host the session. It was a big club and would be always filled with people all having a good time. I was embraced and encouraged, and loved the feeling there.
AAJ: How did you settle on the guitar as your instrument?
KR: I started piano when I was nine; guitar when I was 12. I always play[ed] both after that point, but was more into guitar. Before I left high school and went to Berklee College of Music to follow my friends, I decided I should take a year of jazz piano lessons and decide which I would focus on at Berklee. I studied with the great Jimmy Amadie for a year, who gave me a strong foundation in jazz harmony, which I thank him for to this day. But I ultimately felt that I was a better guitarist so I should keep going with that.
AAJ: Did you have a breakthrough moment when you committed to a career in jazz, or did it more evolve naturally over time?
KR: I committed to playing music for my life when I was nine! Since then, it's never been a question. So, I never committed to a career in jazz. It's all just music to me. Whether it's this or that, I like it allmostly. I became a jazz musician because so much of the music I love is called that, and it inspired me to learn and grow in that direction.
AAJ: You have mentioned in previous interviews that you benefited from Philly's jazz scene. Can you tell me a little more about what the scene was like as you were coming up?
KR: I mentioned a little about the Blue Note already, and there were other clubs that I would go to as well: Slim Coopers, Bob and Barbaras, Ortliebs, T & T Monroes. There was a lot going on in the clubs and then there was a lot going on among my friends and schoolmates. There were tons of bands that were playing parties and colleges, and I was at the center of much of that scene, socially speaking. I also had my band and was a part of many musical projects of my friends, playing gigs in clubs and parties. Plus there were lots of jam sessions and parties where people were playing music.
Philly was really a great place to grow up. My social network was literally thousands of people all doing different stuff. I was in a Ska band, played drums in a Hardcore Punk band, played in a gospel/rock band, was constantly recording music at home on 4-track machines.
And I can't believe I didn't mention it 'til now, but my best friend all growing up was an inseparable musical partner, Gordon Townsend. He played, and still plays, drums. He stayed more in the rock world as I moved towards jazz. He plays in ELO [Electric Light Orchestra] now, touring around the world playing that music. We would go down to Bob Zatzman's music store and buy microphones, amps, roto-toms and Elka string ensemble keyboards and whatever else we could afford or that Bob would just give us. He was so generous. And we would record all the time, like I said. There were other friends also building makeshift studios in their garages and making music. Lots of music!
AAJ: I used to live in Philly. I still miss the city. It has a very distinct atmosphere. What do you miss most about it?
KR: I don't miss it. I had a great childhood and adolescence there. And all my family is still there. I miss them and some of my friends, but not the city itself. But I do love it and am proud to say I am a Philly boy.
AAJ: In 2003, you moved to Zurich, and subsequently to Berlin. How long have you lived in Berlin, and what drew you there?
KR: Two-and-a-half years, [in] Prenzlauerberg, in the former East. A professorship drew me to the city, and since I have been there I have grown very fond of Berlin.
AAJ: What is the jazz/music scene in Berlin like now?
KR: There are many very talented players in Berlin. There are a few places where these people can play. But I feel it lacks a serious scene in terms of bands developing their music on a regular basis. There is some of that, of course, but I think the potential is still untapped. There are more and more great musicians turning up in the city all the time.
AAJ:What do you get out of teaching? What has been the most surprising aspect of teaching in Germany?
KR: It gives me a place to meet people, students and teachers, to feel a certain integration with the city and the people who live there. It provides enough money to take care of my domestic needs on a steady basis, and is flexible enough to allow for my touring and recording career.
The most surprising aspect of teaching in Germany was witnessing the integration of the East school and the West school into one schoolthe Jazz Institute Berlin, or JIB. I came at a very interesting time where the two schools received a mandate from the two larger university systems to become one unified school.
When I came, there were two buildings being usedone in the east, one in the westand the students were constantly commuting between them. Now we have been at our new, unified location in the west for about a year. At one point, though, we all attended a kind of retreat which was conducted by an outside consultant, hired by the school to help us come up with a functioning administrative entity. It was a democracy project==a constitutional congress where we debated the best way to organize the hierarchy and job descriptions and division of responsibilities of all positions in the school; the functional elements of the school itself! It was very interesting and at the end I think we all felt good about what we had come up with.
But a lot of what we proposed was later shot down by the heads of the two still separate east and west universities, the Hans Eisler and the UDK. They wanted us to be unified but they still wanted to retain their own distinct influences and control within the school, which undermined the possibilities of true unity. In the end, though, I don't think that really made all that much difference and I think people are feeling pretty good about things. But it was very interesting to be a part of a political science experiment. And it was also quite novel to realize that this was all a direct inheritance of the history of Germany, WWII and the Cold War.
AAJ: You mentioned, in a previous interview, that you moved to Europe because of a healthier lifestylebetter healthcare, etc. That was over six years ago, and while certainly the American lifestyle hasn't gone through a wholesale evolution, a lot has changed. It is arguably a different time in America now. Do you envision returning to the States at some point?
KR: For now I am cool where I am. I don't think it has gotten any better in the States in terms of the cost of raising a family. If anything, it's gotten worse. It costs next to nothing to send a child to school here, all the way through 'til [a] Master's degree. Health care is affordable. I am not bombarded with advertising everywhere I go, and people are generally pretty cool. That said, it is not my culture, and I do feel the sense that I "belong" more to the States than to "Europe."
But then again, I don't wanna belong. I don't want to be a part of that larger cultural conversation in the United States. I don't share the same experience or assumptions about life that most people do here or there, so it ain't really that simple.
Mostly it really just boils down to that my kids are in Berlin, so I will stay in Berlin.
AAJ: You have a new album out, Reflections. This is a very mellow, contemplative album. Very elegant. What made you choose a trio setting as the follow-up to The Remedy, and can you describe what led you in this creative direction?
KR: I thought it would be a refreshing change to play trio for a while, playing standards. It [being mellow and contemplative] was the feeling and mood we had in the studio while recording.
AAJ: You chose to work with Eric Revis and Eric Harland. What about their playing fit this project?
KR: Eric Revis and Eric Harland are the musicians I wanted to play with because they are both open minded and spontaneous, listening musicians. And also, as Ethan Iverson puts it in the liner notes, they are "committed to the straight-ahead mission," which means that we aren't trying to reinvent the wheel here, but rather play in the more traditional jazz conception that we love and know.
That said, there is no dogma involved and that is a critical point. I cannot play with anyone who is playing music from a dogmatic approach. But I also am not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater either. I love the jazz tradition, that is to say the music of jazz. And I know that we share this attitude, and I have had great experiences playing with Eric and Eric in lots of situations.
AAJ: You included only one composition of your own, something you have been playing for quite a while. Why just one, and why this one?
KR: I felt that this one song of mine fits with this repertoire and perhaps I like the fact that its presence illuminates my idea of what a standard is, or what music and tradition area continuum!