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Kurt Rosenwinkel

Wow. My 1st interview assignment for JazzReview is with current jazz guitar icon Kurt Rosenwinkel. The world is indeed a strange and beautiful place. Presently, Rosenwinkel is one of the most original and thoughtful player/composers in what we refer to as ‘jazz music.’ His new recording, Deep Song comes out in March and is, at turns, beautiful and burning. Kurt and his extremely accommodating Verve ‘rep’ were very gracious in allowing me to do the interview via e-mail instead of on the phone. My low-grade cell phone would’ve made a phone interview virtually impossible and frustrating at best. Not really an option. So please excuse the non-conversational feel of the interview, but by all means enjoy Kurt’s very thoughtful answers to my questions about his process and music.

JazzReview: You've said of Heartcore that the music was conceived to be able to "activate" larger spaces to make the "room lift off the ground." And that The Next Step was written with smaller spaces (clubs like 'Smalls') in mind. Some of Deep Song (particularly "Brooklyn Sometimes") seems like it could function in both spaces. Was this on your mind while writing material for this new record, or were you essentially writing as you did for The Next Step?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: For Deep Song I was writing while visualizing the mood and atmosphere of the songs themselves, internally. I wasn’t thinking of any particular space. In Heartcore, I definitely was thinking of a certain kind of space theaters and bigger concert venues. But for this record, I was focused on the band itself and the material that would be right for the band. So the band was the space I was thinking about on this one.

JazzReview: The guys on your new record are all such powerful musical personalities (Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier, Jeff Ballard, and Ali Jackson). Does it change your writing knowing which individuals you're writing for (like Duke writing for personalities, rather than instruments)?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: "Yes and no" would be the right answer for this one. Through the years my writing has gone through different periods, which have certain qualities that are revealed as the songs come out. It’s a process of discovery for me. I never know what I am going to find at the other end. 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. That is normally how composition happens for me.

On the "yes" side, I can go in with a desire to find things that will be right for a certain group or a certain musician, and try to influence my own perception to fit the preconception. But that is much harder and frustrating, and ultimately futile. I have learned by experience that my own compositional agendas are usually thwarted by what is actually there. Like I can start out trying to write an orchestral large form composition with epic dimensions and end up writing a simple pop-type song. It really makes me laugh sometimes. Other times I'll sit down and start practicing scales and then a composition begins to take shape.

I do spend a lot of time visualizing a particular band and feel the dynamics of the group in my imagination with certain players, whoever they may be. And as a bandleader, this is the action, the activity. So probably through this intense visualization, I would guess that I attract certain compositions or I will naturally go to the starting point where one of those kinds of songs is. I know there’s no real method to show here for anyone else’s benefit, and that’s why I don’t teach composition. But that is the best way I can describe what is going on.

JazzReview: Also, knowing you had the extra harmonic instrument (piano), did this affect your writing, knowing you didn't have to comp and play lines at once?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: Somehow it’s more natural for me to imagine my music with a piano in the band because I hear harmony that way. Ironically, this has made me go farther on the guitar because I am a guitarist. So I guess I would say that it affects my playing much more than it does my writing. I feel more expressive as a guitarist when there is a piano in the band because I can focus on being expressive melodically, which is where I am at on the guitar. I love flying inside all of the harmony that's coming from the piano instead of having to create those harmonic qualities myself, and be expressive melodically, which is not to say that I don’t love playing trio, for example. I do, it’s just I would pick different material, material that is less harmonically specific perhaps, less compositional.

JazzReview: The forms and arrangements of much of the material on Deep Song are rather extended and ornate compared to most small group jazz writing. Yet, they're still somehow accessible to the listener and user friendly to the players. How conscious are you of balancing the amount of solo sections with the written material?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: I am very conscious of how much the songs are asking from the musicians. The biggest area of improvement that I have noticed in my own compositional development has been in giving more and asking less. My writing is more concentrated and simpler. "Less is more" is the right phrase. As you say, these compositions are extended and ornate. They have a lot of detail in them, that’s true. The most important thing that’s happening is that the reward of that detail is immersion and mood quality, in a word. You know, it’s not detail just for detail's sake just because I want to "be a composer!" Ha,ha, no! It’s because those things that are happening, those connections, those specific passages, are bringing something tangible to the listener and the player. This is my understanding of why they are somehow accessible to the listener.

JazzReview: I'm interested in your recording process for this new record. Was it the first time everyone saw the material in the studio, or had you been shedding it in front of people for a while? Does everyone in the band get a written part, or are some things only verbal?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: Oh, an easy question! We followed the classic best-case scenario model for making a jazz record. We rehearsed and played a couple gigs, guerilla style, in NYC at Fat Cat, a great club - everyone in New York go there (for the real stuff). Then we did a whirlwind summer festival tour, hitting all the major jazz festivals in Canada and Europe, Israel and Istanbul. After that, we had two weeks off and met again for three days in the studio Avatar in NYC, with James Farber engineering. So we knew the music way past the fundamentals and it was such a pleasure. So much so, that when we had to play a song again for whatever reason, I was happy that we got to play it again. When we got some of them on the first take, I was almost disappointed. It felt inspired.

JazzReview: The opening track, "The Cloister," is quite introspective; to the point of meditative it seemed to me. Did the title come out of the tune, or did you have in mind the vibe you wanted to get at before writing the piece?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: My father heard the song and commented that it sounded like "Cloister music." He was right, and so I named it that.

JazzReview: Re-recording earlier compositions is not so common, but certainly not a new thing. I really loved hearing Mehldau play the ‘guitar' part you played earlier on "Use of Light." Way cool! What made you want to revisit the tunes that you did on this record?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: When I put this project together I wanted to play the strongest material, whether it was new or old, and "Use of Light" was a song that was very different because of the instrumentation that I could be the melodic voice. Brad’s intro to that song is beautiful and was always a high point in the set on tour - his intros to that song. It was fascinating to hear his approach evolve over the whole tour. He usually started out with a similar motif, major seven chords with a minor nine on top going up in major thirds, if my ears are correct. But it always embarked on remarkably different journeys from there. But when he played that intro on that one take, which is the take on the record, it was like all that experience had just vanished and now was the REAL intro. It’s hard to find the right words to convey what that intro means to me because it’s an understanding of how things evolve and culminate. It was a moment of great realization about the artistic process and about the understanding involved in doing something, somehow very Zen. The whole take proceeded accordingly, almost perfectly.

JazzReview: Speaking of "Use of Light," your intro in the Next Step version is beautiful and spare. It reminds me somehow of Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), even while your sound is so personal and immediately recognizable. This ability to incorporate and transcend seems to be something you do particularly well. Could you speak to some of your main influences in terms of your own playing and sound?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: Sure, thanks. I don’t know Thurston Moore, so I'll check him out, thanks. On the guitar, my main influences are George Van Eps for his unparalleled mastery of the instrument and his unique way of playing the guitar like a piano; Allan Holdsworth for his mind-bending lines and unique harmonic pattern vocabulary, AND his incredible melodicism. He is someone who is very overlooked when people speak about "jazz guitar." And Grant Green for the way he can sustain the intensity of a solo for so long and make the band cook in so many different ways; Kevin Eubanks for his brilliant composing and unique approach and sound, although I am disappointed that he never followed up in the direction of his incredible record Opening Night. And Pat Metheny for being Pat Metheny! There’s just so much music that he has made in so many different ways and has crested upon the wave of the high heavens. I admire most, perhaps, his melodic freedom. And Bill Frisell, as well, a complete original - mind-blowing and still inscrutable after all these years. I have no idea how he does what he does; John Scofield, one of the icons among us. Every record brings freshness and life. He is simply dangerous with a capitol "D." Tal Farlow for his inventiveness, dexterity and sound; Jimmy Page for his sounds and wild beauty; Hendrix! Hendrix didn’t record enough, but when I hear his records, it’s like I am imagining what it must have been like to be a "witness" to what happens when he is playing. And I certainly cannot forget Jim Hall.

I'm so happy to have those records he made with Paul Desmond. His playing and everyone’s playing is essential. These are the guitarists! Other major influences are: Miles, Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, Joe Henderson, The Beatles, Duke Ellington, Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Max Roach, Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Kelly, Ahmad Jamal, Lennie Tristano, Schoenberg, Dutilleux, Prokofiev, Ravel, Debussy, Frank Sinatra, and many more.

JazzReview: I read a quote of yours stating, "Something works because it sounds like it works," in relation to certain harmonies that may not work in theory, but sound right to the ear for reasons concerning dynamics, orchestration, etc. I couldn't agree more. At the same time, some 'book learning' and theory can be helpful. Could you give us some thoughts on going to school for jazz?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: This is going to be a very long article. Going to school for jazz is all well and good, as long as you are gaining EXPERIENCE. I'll leave it at that.

JazzReview: Has living outside of the U.S. affected your music?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: Yeah, it has. My life has evolved in many ways and that is reflected in the music. I learn things.

JazzReview: Will the band on your new record be playing any dates in the States or Europe?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: The band from the record already toured last summer, so everybody is back to doing their own thing again now. But, of course, I have my band and we will be touring a lot this spring when the record comes out in the States and in Europe.

JazzReview: Brian Blade's Fellowship is one of my favorite groups, and I know many who feel the same. It would no doubt be hard to coordinate, but will this group make another record any time in the near future?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: Thanks for mentioning the Fellowship. I am honored to be a member and Brian is always an inspiration to me musically and personally. It’s hard with people’s schedules and also since he’s so busy doing other things, I’m not sure what his status is in terms of having a deal or not. But a third Fellowship record will happen, that much I know, just don’t know when. But we are in contact and he is touring this summer I think with the ship.

JazzReview: Your interest in film music is something I'd love to see manifested. There are some really interesting composers working in film right now. Who are some of the guys you dig and what kind of film projects would you like to be involved in?

Kurt Rosenwinkel: I would definitely love to try film scoring. I would like to try it. I've only had the opportunity once, but it wasn’t the right time. It’s something that would come naturally, I feel. Also, since I have my home studio, I am equipped to do it, too.

John Dworkin

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Kurt Rosenwinkel
  • Subtitle: Original From The Heart To The Core
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