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Kurt Rosenwinkel: Reflections from Berlin

Franz A. Matzner By

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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.

Kurt Rosenwinkel

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 all—mostly. 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.

Kurt Rosenwinkel Standards TrioAnd 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.


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