In conversation with kurt rosenwinkel
By Ted Panken
Few musicians under 40, let alone hardcore jazz guitarists under 40, project a more immediately identifiableóor more broadly influentialótonal personality than Kurt Rosenwinkel, whose most recent recording, the self-released The Remedy (Artist Share), documents a spring 2006 Village Vanguard engagement by Rosenwinkelís quintet.
Born October 28, 1970 in Philadelphia and raised in the City of Brotherly Love, Rosenwinkel spent three years at Bostonís Berklee School of Music, and moved to Brooklyn in the early Ď90s. As the decade progressed, using the Greenwich Village club Smalls as a base of operations from which to do research-and-development, he developed his idiosyncratic concept, one blending an original, virtuosic approach to navigating the guitar and an efflorescent compositional imagination.
In 2003, Rosenwinkel emigrated to Zurich to assume a teaching position, moving to Berlin in 2007 for a tenured professorship at the Jazz Institut. No longer a taken-for-granted ďlocal,Ē his New York performances are now major events, as evidenced by the large turnouts at the Village Vanguard during his week there last March in conjunction with the release of The Remedy , and at Smalls during a two-night August engagement with a nascent cooperative quartet featuring pianist Aaron Parks. We caught up with Rosenwinkel during the latter visit.
Letís talk about the dynamics of doing a studio recording vis-a-vis a live one.
The first thing that comes to mind about the difference between the two is that when youíre recording in the studio you know that you can stop and start again. I always thought of my studio records as an opportunity to craft compositions, and thereís this idea that you can perfect or improve the song as part of the process of recording. You know that you can do a better take, that itís possible to play it again and maybe do it better, so you can make the real mistake of stopping. Of course, live, you donít think in those terms. You start, this is the moment, and youíre sharing that moment, no matter what happens, with not only yourself and the musicians, but a whole audience as well. The most important aspect about what youíre doing is the fact that youíre sharing a moment with everybody there at that moment, in real time. Also, I have a more visceral connection with the sound, because Iím not using headphones. I guess you could say the contexts produce a different psychology or frame of mind; you get different results or can reach different places. One thing that happens to me when Iím playing live is a kind of disappearance or immersion. Somehow that kind of disappearance allows me to fly more, almost like Iím flying on the wings of the audience.
That being said, I love recorded music. I love the fact that you can make something that you can just put on and press ďplayí and there it is. Itís important to me to create recorded music, because thatís whatís going to be there after Iím gone, and it documents what Iím creating as an artist. Thatís the end product. A live concert is in the moment, and that is its own thing. But ultimately, the recordings are going to be there.
Were you conscious of the fact that you were recording while you were on the bandstand at the Village Vanguard?
Right around that time, I heard about another live recording that a band made in New Yorkóthey were somewhere for a week. The approach they took was to do the studio mentality live. In other words, they would play a song several times and edit down the solo forms to make it more concise and put out that concentrated, direct message. From talking to the musicians who were involved, it seemed like a very difficult and conflicted thing, because it ran against the grain of what they normally would do live. It was interesting for me to hear this then, because Iíd already had the ideaóand this really reinforced itóthat I wanted not to change anything at all for the purposes of recording. I decided that we were going to record the gig, but we werenít there to make a record.
So you were documenting, but without an end goal in mind, as it were.
Thatís right. That gave us the freedom to not have to think about the recording.
What position in the week does this recording represent?
All of the songs on the record come from either Thursday night or Saturday night, and we recorded Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday. I listened to everything, and just picked the best stuff.
How has your Artist Share experience been? Have you made back your investment?
We havenít really sold all that many records, so thereís a lot more to sell, and we still have almost recouped. Already at this point, weíre safe in the investment, so we can continue to reinvest and make more records along the same model with little tweaks here and there.
The one thing that we discovered is that I think we need European retail distribution. Most of our sales through the Internet have been in the United States, because thatís the only way we released it. I think that model is good for the United States, but Europe has not caught onto it as much. People in Europe are still mostly buying their music in retail stores. Thatís what Iíve seen in my own sales, and thatís the gist I get from talking to people in the industry.
Well, youíve been living in Europe since the end of 2003ófirst Zurich and now with a tenured university position in Berlin. Itís a much different environment than the immersive musical culture of New York City, where you developed your sound and ideas over six years of weekly gigs at Smalls. What effect, if any, has life abroad had on your musical production? In what ways is it different? In what ways is there continuity?
One difference is no longer being a part of trying to ďmake itĒ in the music business in the States. When I was here, trying to get my career happening and get my thing together business-wise, booking agents would come down to the gigs at Smalls. One guy was a representative from a big West Coast booking agency, and he sent this email that said, ďI absolutely loved Kurtís music; I think heís brilliant,Ē blah-blah-blah, ďbut I just canít see how we can help him or work with him because I donít know what category this music is.Ē He was like, ďunfortunately, Kurt falls in betweenĒ these two categories that he mentioned, that existed for him, and therefore, I was useless to his business world. I felt this kind of attitude present itself in a lot of different ways when I was here. Getting away from that, and deciding that Iím not interested in being involved with it has been a relief. I can do what I want, and whatever happens, itís okay. I donít have to fit into any categories. If somebody canít figure it out, whatever.
The continuity is the fact that Iím still a New York musician, that my musical life has everything to do with New York and what I got from my life thereóhow it made me as a musician. Some people ask, ďSo, now that you live in Berlin, do you have an all-Berlin band?Ē The idea that this would be the case strikes me as so funny and bizarre. Iím still a New York musician. For the most part, everybody I play with is from New York.
What does it mean now to be a New York musician, as opposed to perhaps ten years ago?
I donít know in an objective sense. For me, Iím just tied musically to New York. To me it particularly means being exposed to the history of bebop, the hardcore existence of bebop and modern jazz that Iíve really only found in New York. I mean, thereís a huge range of creative music in New York, and that is part of it, too. But what I identify as most New York in myself comes from those years at Smalls, learning real hardcore, roots bebop. Being next to the piano late night and Smalls, and listening to Frank Hewitt play all these straight-ahead bop tunes, the freedom and craziness of the ideas, the range and amplitude of depth. The way particularly Frank Hewitt played astounded me, transported me.
How do those lessons translate into the sound of your band? The rhythms on this recording at the Vanguard arenít the type of rhythms that Frank Hewitt was playing to, and the phrasing and attack is different.
One of the revelations I got from listening to Frank Hewitt is that at the core of bebop thereís an inventiveness thatís also reinventing the harmony as itís happening; you can take many harmonic pathways through these songs, so the harmony itself is being improvised in a very changeable way. I learned from Frank Hewitt that, in addition to the context and structure, and everything else that already exists in the song, thereís a whole world of imagination and magic. The song is the nucleus, but thereís an entire atmosphere around the nucleus. Itís this atmosphere that is the most exciting and engaging and important thing in the music.
Even though you might compare a band thatís playing at Smallísóletís say Ari Roland and Sacha Perryówith my band, and think that they have nothing to do with each other, the truth is that we have a lot in common. I think mostly it is this concept, this idea, this truth that the most important thing in music is the atmosphere around the literal nucleus of the actual nuts and bolts of the music. But also, there is a language commonality between my band and bebop. Definitely, if youíre going to play in my band, you need to have that foundation, because that language is part of where weíre coming from, even though the rhythms are different and the harmony is different.
As you mentioned, the rhythms are very different, and you work with a broad beat palette. What are you looking for from your drummers? Are you very proactive about the way a groove should go, or do you more or less trust the drummer to give it to you?
My songs definitely have a rhythmic motif or groove, and I will give the drummer that groove as a way of teaching them the song, to get that vibe or groove or feel as a starting a point. After that, whatever they do is them making the song their own. Itís like I try to give them a key, and then the key unlocks the door. The lock and key analogy happens with my compositions, tooóa key has to be very specifically fitted to the lock, but once you use that specific key to open the door, you can be very free inside of that space.
Has living in Europe altered the process by which you compose?
Itís been much the same. Inspiration for songs comes from lots of places. Perhaps Iím in a certain mood, then Iím improvising, something comes out and I write a tune from that. Sometimes I can write at the guitar or the piano. Or Iíll be messing around with virtual instruments at the computer, put up a keyboard and improvise something, then put some drums and bass to that, then rework it, and use editing and cutting and pasting on the computer to follow my ear to make a composition. Sometimes Iíll think of some very basic theoretical thing, a certain chord sequence, perhaps a cycle of fifths, then have a little discovery session with it, and perhaps a song will come out of that. Itís pretty open.
Is there a feedback loop between you and the people you play with? Youíve been playing with Mark Turner for a long time, so obviously thereís a synergy.
Yes, definitely. I have an idea of the band that Iím writing for. Iíve been playing with Mark for so long, his sound is in my composition world. When Iím writing, I hear his music. We attended Berklee College of Music together, and knew each other, but didnít play together then. But later on, in New York, Mark was living just down the street from the place I shared with Ben Street. We played a lot of trio there with Jeff Ballard, and we knew Mark was nearby, so we called him, he came over and played with us, and that was it. We played together at Smalls for many years. We were in each otherís bands when Mark was making records for Warner Brothers. Weíve all grown so much together in our important formative years that sometimes I donít know what is my influence and what is Markís and Jeffís and Benís. Often we would find ourselves playing more than 6 notes in a row in an improvised melody at the same time, night after night. Itís all been mixed up so nicely as we grew together.
What were some of the first principles, the ideas you started with that made you good mates at the beginning and gave you that foundation on which to grow?
First principles. Subtlety and attention to sound, I think, was probably the first earmark. Also, I guess maybe an adventurousness in our improvisations. Also a dedication to craft and to the lessons that one learns as a musician when you are deeply interested in the music that has come before, just because itís great music and has such a high standard. We would play Duke Ellington tunes and really get inside of them, and play the arrangements and make them live. So we all shared that dedication to the craft aspect.
I know multifarious influences inform your soundóbeyond the general notion of an aesthetic, stylistic details also build up and accumulate. Who were some of your major signposts?
Keith Jarrettís American Quartet in the Ď70s was a big influence on my music.
Weíre talking about Dewey Redman, Paul Motian and Charlie Haden.
Yes, that group. Also Duke Ellington, particularly the Far East Suite and His Mother Called Him Bill and Afro-BossaóĎ60s Ellington. Also, Ornette Colemanís Live at Town Hall for me was a huge opening of awareness of whatís possible in sound and intention and just depth of soul. Also, Miles Davisí Live at the Plugged Nickel was pretty big.
A big signpost for just about everyone under 45.
Sure. Also Elmo Hopeís record Homecoming, which is very beautiful. What was inspiring was Elmo Hopeís homegrown way of playingódiscovering your own way through just doing it, as opposed to studying it and transcribing other people, just working through your own process and finding things through your own ear, and coming up with an approach thatís your own. I felt that a lot from Elmo Hope.
Youíre originally from Philadelphia. Who were some of the guitar heroes?
Speaking of Philly, Kevin Eubanks was a big influence. Not in a technical way. Like, I wasnít able to really GET anything from him on the guitar per se, because I never transcribed anything. But his compositions inspired me a lot, especially the record, Opening Night, which was one of the first jazz records I was turned onto when I was a teenager in Philly. It blew my mind, and it remains one of the best records in my record collection.
Pat Metheny Group records were a big influenceóthat expansive imagination and ambition for whatís possible for a jazz group, compositionally extended forms, that whole sound. His natural melodicism on the instrument is also very inspiring. I find a similar naturalism in Ornetteís playing. I know that Pat is directly influenced by Ornette, but thereís something more elemental in the similarities of how they approach melody. Patís a very careful craftsman when he is making a record, and his playing on his records now can seem a bit formulaic to me. But when I see him live, I get more of that feeling of melodic freedom. I think his record Rejoicing is one of the best guitar trio records ever. So that was a big signpost, as you say.
Allen Holdsworth was also a big influence, and continues to be. His music and language comes the closest for me on guitar of someone whoís really adapting and living in the world of John Coltrane, in terms of vocabulary, in the lines. For me, heís one of the only guitar players who has even touched that world.
I love Tal Farlow and George Van Epps. I was also influenced early on by Bill Frisell and John Scofield, and rock guitarists, like Alex Lifeson from Rush, a brilliant guitarist. Incredible sound and imagination. Jimmy Page, too.
Guitar is iconically an instrument associated with rock-and-roll, with a certain stance and swagger. What was the appeal of jazz for you? There must have been a time when you said, ďThis is the stuff; this is what Iím going to do.Ē
What triggered that?
Since I was a young kid, I felt like I had an internal impulse to make music. I started writing songs when I was 9 years old. In high school I started to become exposed to jazz through WRTI, the radio station there. I started getting into more advanced forms and more mature and deeper musics. I developed a thirst for the more complicated music. I liked Rush. I went from listening to hard rock, to progressive rock, to electric jazz and fusion, and then into acoustic jazz. Luckily, I was in Philly at the time when I started getting into Jazz-jazz. Iíd go to jam sessions with really old-school, hardcore jazz guysóBootsie Barnes, Tony Williams, Eddie Green, Al Jackson, Mike Boone, Byron Landhamóat a club called the Blue Note, this really big community club, packed with peopleóa good cross-section, but it was mostly a black neighborhood club.
I would learn a tune or two a week out of The Real Book, and my Mom would drive me there from Germantown. Theyíd welcome me up on the stage, and Iíd call ďStella By StarlightĒ and they would launch into some intro that was all so new to me. I had no idea how they knew it. It wasnít in The Real Book. It was a great education for me about what jazz really is. Itís not what you learn on the page; itís this whole tradition. So I really got a good dose of thatóthe spirit, improvisation, connecting with people, lifting things off the ground. Thatís how I fell in love with jazz.
Has your quintet been playing much over the last five months since the recording came out? Last spring, you did a two-week tour of the Northeast, including a CD-release week at the Vanguard.
We did that record release tour. After that, Iíve done a lot of different things. We skipped the summer, and in the fall Iíll actually be playing more trio.
Are you now in a period where youíre looking for other configurations to frame what youíre doing? Is that just circumstantial, a function of being in Europe and not having convenient access to the band?
My quintet is really where my heart isómusically, compositionally. Itís the most powerful context for me as an artist. I definitely want to keep it going, but frankly, the economics are quite challenging, so that starts to push me in different directions. Which is fine, because I donít have to do the same thing all the time. Not that itís the same thing, but the same context. I want to make a trio record, and Iíll play next year with Ben Street and Jeff Ballard. Thereís a lot of music to mine there. Iíve started recording a new record at home in Berlin, in my studio, sort of a la Heartcore, but also differentósongs that, for one reason or another, I donít even know why, are somehow in the Brazilian vernacular. Thatís what Iím really focused on now in terms of composition.
After moving from Zurich last year, it sounds as though your Berlin experience has been fruitful.
Berlin felt really good to move to, because it felt like taking a step closer to New York or the east coast of the United States. Berlin kind of feels like Queens when youíre walking around. Itís got the elevated subways and big avenues and kind of a funky vibe. Really good. Itís very cool, very dynamic. Tons of people are doing lots of different things. A lot of people living off the grid, which is more like New York was when I was here than almost New York is now. Thereís a lot of open nooks and crannies in the city, where people are taking over little spaces, taking over art collectives and performance spacesóall kinds of stuff is going on.
Itís probably all part of the process of gentrifying the former East Berlin, but you have to take advantage of these openings while they last.
Talk about how you fit into that cultural milieu. Youíre an American, an established jazz personality who is getting credit as an influence both guitaristically and for your compositions, Are the younger musicians there pretty aware of you?
Definitely the younger people know who I am. A lot of people kind of canít believe that Iím there. They didnít picture that all of a sudden Iíd be in their school, teaching them. The school itself is really interesting, because itís a combination of a former East school and a former West school having been mashed together by the larger university system. Really interesting processes are ongoing to unify those two sides. During the winter, I was part of these almost Constitutional Congresses that the school conducted amongst the professors to sort of reinvent itself from the ground up in terms of how it would function as a unified new school. It was like a democracy project, and it was cool to be part of it. Itís an example of one of the small ways in which the city is still trying to mend the wound between east and west.
Interview notes: Kurt Rosenwinkel was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on August 15, 2008.