The Shifting Technique Of Kurt Rosenwinkel


Kurt Rosenwinkel released Angels Around on his own label, Heartcore Records.

(Photo: Renato Nunes)

“Punjab,” which Joe Henderson wrote for his 1965 album, In ’N Out, was composed with a two-line melody, and Rosenwinkel plays both parts, making it sound not like chords but two distinct voices. “It was difficult,” he said. “It was very difficult. I had been playing a single-note version of that for a long time, and then I thought, ‘Let me get to what the tune really is.’ I worked on that for a while, and the physical formations on the guitar were really awkward. But because it’s so awkward, it’s like those two voicings are completely distinct in the physical way that you have to play it. So, it gets the feeling of two separate voices together.”

During this conversation with DownBeat, Rosenwinkel’s phone died mid-sentence. So, after some email correspondence, we agreed to pick things up the next day, when he and the band would be about 180 kilometers north of Härnösand, in Umeå.

But bad news beat me to him. By the time I got him on the phone, Rosenwinkel had learned that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, his spring tour plans had all been canceled. “I was going to go from here to New York, and we were going to play Carnegie Hall,” he said. “Then we’d go out to L.A. and play there, and play in Phoenix, and in Oakland at Yoshi’s. Then we were going to fly to Antigua to play a surprise birthday party for Eric Clapton at his house there. That got canceled. And then I was supposed to fly to Richmond, Virginia, to do a thing with a big band. That got canceled.

“Two of my musicians are sitting in the Lisbon airport, waiting to find out what they’re supposed to do,” he added. “It’s a fucked-up moment.” Meanwhile, the Angels Around trio still had four dates remaining on its Swedish tour. Given the overall situation, Rosenwinkel decided to reschedule our conversation.

A week later, back at his home in Berlin, he was in a much better mood. “My idea of a great vacation is to just stay at home,” he explained, noting that Germany’s stay-at-home order was “like a forced vacation for me.”

Earlier in the day, he had been in the studio, working on a Heartcore project by Brazilian guitarists Pedro Martins and Daniel Santiago, who perform as a duo under the name Simbiose. “I’m producing it, engineering it and mixing it,” he said. “It’s going to be a really beautiful album.”

Last year, Heartcore released Vox, an album by Martins, one of several acts who are part of the label’s roster. Others include the jazz sextet Sun Dew, the alt-pop band Montë Mar and pianist ELEW (aka Eric Lewis), who has used the term “rockjazz” to describe his music.

Rosenwinkel’s own output for Heartcore illustrates the stylistic breadth the label hopes to encourage. Before Angels Around, he released Searching The Continuum with the electronic trio Bandit 65. Working with guitarist Tim Motzer and drummer Gintas Janusonis, the group’s material is totally improvised onstage—not simply the melodies and harmonies, but also the instrumental textures. The result is not just spontaneous composition, but instant orchestration as well.

During an interview with Janusonis from his home in Brooklyn, the drummer noted that sometimes the music can be dreamily ambient, and sometimes driving and linear. “But there’s always this cohesion,” he said. “We have this creative telepathy between the three of us.” He joked that he and his bandmates are always a bit amazed that they end together, adding, “It speaks to our musical relationship that we feel things move at the same time.”

Rosenwinkel’s first release on Heartcore, Caipi—a program of original compositions influenced by Brazilian styles—is the label’s cornerstone. The album was also atypical for the guitarist, who contributed vocals and played nearly all the instruments, with guest appearances by Martins, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and guitarist Eric Clapton.

It was the desire to record the songs that made up Caipi that, in many ways, led to the creation of Heartcore. “Caipi developed over 10 years,” he explained, indicating the project was a natural outgrowth of his creative process. Rosenwinkel views himself as a conduit for the music: “As a composer, I feel like songs are born through me, and I don’t really control what they are. In a way, I don’t even feel like I write anything. I just get the earthly credit.”

Clapton was a key factor in pulling the Caipi project together. “We met at the Village Vanguard, I think in 2011,” Rosenwinkel recalled. “We hit it off and kept in touch through texting and sending music back and forth. All through developing Caipi, he was really supportive and really into it. He was involved in releasing it, and finishing the music. It was a very deep and personal connection that we share through the music.”

Looking ahead, Rosenwinkel has a number of projects in the works at Heartcore. In December, he recorded a Bandit 65 session in Philadelphia, and he is developing The Nowhere Abstracts, a forthcoming album that will spotlight solo guitar pieces. “I built this system of live looping, and I would do these solo performances where I would make loops and create actual song forms,” he explained. “I basically wrote my own code for a system that would control the music, and it was crazy. It was too intensely technical. But it yielded some songs.”

Plus, he has an album nearing completion that he described as “kind of like a rock album,” and he’s also at work on a collection of solo piano pieces. “There’s material for at least two more albums with my jazz quartet,” he said, and added that he has started to work on an album of orchestral music. He also is pondering a project in which a variety of singers would interpret his compositions.

“There are many ways to make music, and I love making music in different ways, because I love the difference in the result,” he said. “For me, there’s always a surprise at the different manifestations that can occur.” He said he has no fear of confusing listeners by offering so many different versions of Kurt Rosenwinkel: “I’ve noticed that my music always ends up sounding like me, in different ways, anyway.

“There’s nothing you can do to get away from yourself completely,” he continued, with a chuckle. “No matter how hard you try.” DB

This story originally was published in the July 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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