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Deep Song by Kurt Rosenwinkel

Kurt Rosenwinkel’s new recording Deep Song is a mixture of joy and mystery. Also, the joy in mystery. Complexity is regularly laid next to simplicity to highlight the beauty in both. The tunes Rosenwinkel has shaped here are occasionally like Zen koans. Deep works of art often create more questions than they answer. Like well formed koans, these tunes have no set shelf life, but are to be pondered for as long as the listener can remain open to them. Open-ness is a key element here. Although the music is for the most part "closed form", it has been conceived with such great attention to space, and performed with such fire and intimacy, that it creates a very warm and "open" atmosphere: At turns beautiful and burning.

As the title of the CD suggests, the tune’s ‘the thing’ here, and this results in a more equal distribution of solo time to written material. Melody is boss. The melodies and forms are very poetic and can become rather extended and ornate. In regards to his writing process, Rosenwinkel likens it to archeology:

"I feel like an archeologist whose craft is to know what belongs to the thing being discovered and what doesn’t, as it is happening. So I will pick a spot musically and start to brush away things and dig carefully and exploratively. If I find something then I keep brushing away stuff - usually things having to do with my own personality, and then find what is already there. If I don’t find the shape of something, then I move on and try somewhere else."

For his previous recording (Heartcore) Rosenwinkel said he was writing music to "activate larger spaces" to "make the room lift off the ground". On Deep Song, the tune itself is the space: not Smalls, the 55 bar, Fat Cat, or a 10,000 seat theater, but the tune itself. It’s an actual place of escape, and Rosenwinkel has taken care to be sure the space is welcoming, beautiful, ever interesting, changing, and mysterious all at once. I imagine the first listening of this material to be akin to an eager foreigner visiting a Greek island for the first time. While always intriguing, the feeling is that some of these musical elements are at once foreign and familiar. Or maybe it’s more like wandering through some ancient mosque, cathedral, or city. Certainly not because the music is ‘old’, but because of its details, ornate form, or foreign-ness. Or maybe it’s more like a relaxed wandering of the Guggenheim.

For the record: this is so NOT an "all-star" recording date. The fact that all of the members in this band (Rosenwinkel, Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier, Jeff Ballard, and Ali Jackson) are successful, well-known, respected players in the jazz community is incidental. This is a very ‘group’ oriented record, not just a blowing session. In fact, there is only one track on the record where the entire frontline gets a chance to blow. Additionally, the playing and writing on this recording is proof that new music doesn’t have to be jarring, overtly aggressive, or intentionally inaccessible to be unconventional or original; which appears to be what some creative musicians think these days.

The first track on the recording is "The Cloister". A prime example of the compositional "ornate-ness" mentioned earlier, this piece is also ruminative throughout - almost meditative. At times the rhythmic sense of this melody is somehow deliberate and obscure at once. There are chords that are held out to cap off certain phrases or sections which feel like a surrender. The band lets these chords dissipate into the air like a letting go into a mystery. This feeling, while maybe not intentional, seems habitual on this recording. And it’s a sorely missed habit among musicians these days; maybe particularly jazzers. Also, the ending sections of this opening track exemplify what’s so intriguing about many of these compositions. Listening to this tune is like opening a set of Chinese boxes in reverse. Where many writers would be satisfied w/ the large amount of material already covered in this piece, Rosenwinkel keeps writing because it was there to be discovered.

Although I haven’t read any quotes of Rosenwinkel mentioning his influence, I feel he pays particularly "Mingusian" attention to compositional detail, line writing (contrapuntal lines), and a befriending of dissonance. His interpretation of the title track ballad (made famous by Billie Holiday) recalls Mingus’ approach to his own "Self-Portrait in Three Colors". Very detailed, multiple lines, no solos, everyone playing parts - it’s all about the tune. Even the lyrics to "Deep Song" echo Mingus’ regularly dark and somewhat haunted character. Also, Rosenwinkel’s archeological analogy to composition (finding what’s already there) reminds me of Mingus’ speaking of his compositional skills being a gift from god, while his facility on bass comes from hard work. Lastly on this tangential matter, as particularly demonstrated on Heartcore, Rosenwinkel is not afraid to use the studio as a tool as Mingus had before him.

Don’t let my emphasis on Rosenwinkel’s writing lead you to believe that there’s no blowing on this recording. To the contrary, everyone shines and has room to step up. The tune "Synthetics" is the most overtly smokin’ piece here. Its form is one of two tunes on Deep Song which have your basic head-solo-head format, and the band makes the most of it. The standout solo here is Mehldau’s, which is (not coincidentally) the first in the tune. It feels like this may have been the last recorded tune of the session. After the other pieces had been finished, the band was pent-up and ready to let fly on a burner. "Synthetics" fits the bill and since Mehldau gets the first solo, that initial explosion of energy is spent during his time: Absolutely the definition of ‘burning’ here. There are two or three moments in this solo where it gets so hot I still, after repeated listenings, involuntarily jump and utter "damn" or "whoooohoooo" or some such exclamation. Mehldau seemingly manifests intricate, originally formed, swinging phrases at will, and Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard are there at every turn to feed, reply, and push him higher. The other tune with the head-solos-head format is the closing blues "The Next Step". This is also the only tune where Rosenwinkel, Redman, and Mehldau all get solo space. Redman shines on this one showing once again his affinity for combining soulful blues playing with be-bop. After a long records’ worth of more cerebral jazz music, this tune is again something of a release and a very powerful and emotional take.

Rosenwinkel’s playing is right up there with his writing in terms of ability and originality. From his legato phrasing, to tone, picking technique, and harmonic conception, he keeps on growing. There’s also his technique of singing along with the lines he’s playing. To his credit, he didn’t shy away from working on getting the right sound, or balance of this technique from the studio. This vocalizing is particularly haunting on his solo in "Use of Light". It casts a ghostly shadow. This solo is like a purging of sorts. It feels like a casting off of inhibitions, a letting go into the mystery which inevitably brings its own sort of free-wheeling self-assurance - a confidence in abandon. His solo on the track "The Cross" is worth mentioning as well. There’s a brief moment of "Metheny channeling" during the solo in this track. Similarly, I think some of Metheny’s compositional optimism has osmosized into this tune. It’s uplifting. But maybe Rosenwinkel’s best playing on the recording is during "Brooklyn Sometimes" in which he also plays the short but beautiful piano intro. This tune is played with just the quartet (no saxophone) and he takes advantage of the extra space. The melody is one of the more poetic on the record, and its minimalism, along with Rosenwinkel’s loose interpretation of his own music, allows the written material to blur into the soloing. Rosenwinkel’s playing (five minutes worth) gradually grows more and more effusive over a long and consistent build up of form and content. It is a brilliant, landmark solo.

No surprise here that I cannot recommend Deep Song highly enough. Get it for the compositions, the ‘vibe’, the virtuosic playing on a particular instrument (take your pick), but by all means get it. I’m sure that over the next few decades, as during the last one, these players will come together again and again in different combinations to play, record and perform. I look forward to every conceivable combination and situation.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Kurt Rosenwinkel
  • CD Title: Deep Song
  • Genre: Contemporary Jazz / Modern
  • Year Released: 2005
  • Record Label: Verve
  • Tracks: The Cloister, Brooklyn Sometimes, The Cross, If I Should Lose You, Synthetics, Use Of Light, Cake, Deep Song, Gesture, The Next Step
  • Musicians: Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Joshua Redman (saxophone), Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jeff Ballard (drums), Ali Jackson (drums)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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