Kurt Rosenwinkel Quartet at the Village Vanguard
From February 28 until March 04, 2012, the Kurt Rosenwinkel Quartet got cozy in the dark and welcoming Village Vanguard for six evenings and 12 evocative sets of guitar-work and authoritative musicianship. Rosenwinkel partnered with friends Eric Revis (bass), Aaron Parks (piano), and the band young’n Justin Faulkner (drums).
My interest in Rosenwinkel began when friend of Stereophile, Art Guevarra, ripped me a copy of Rosenwinkel’s record Reflections. Reflections is included as one of my submissions for the February 2012 issue’s Records to Die For feature. How would the live experience compare to this rich, pensive, and subdued record?
A jazz bass player whose resume includes work with legends such as Buddy Miles, Eumir Deodato, and Lou Rawls, Art was a worthy accompaniment to the Vanguard, readily grilling me on who was who in the pictures lining the Vanguard’s walls. Just like any other New York City jazz club with serious pull, the Vanguard packs the place shoulder to shoulder, Japanese tourists to NYU students back to back, potentially swapping elbow grease with Slowhand himself.
Kurt and his bandmates took the stage promptly at 9pm for their first set, which cost $25 plus a one drink minimum. To stay for the second set would be an additional $10. A justifiable price to watch some of the best hands in the jazz guitar world, that is, if you can see them from where you are sitting. Luckily, Art and I perched on the back left corner of the raised balcony, where we could see Rosenwinkel and Parks clearly. Faulkner and Revis were both obscured by the column supporting the front-end of the balcony.
The quartet opened with “Our Secret World”, the title track from Rosenwinkel’s 2010 release, which begins with a futuristic whole-toned lead that asks the eternal question of jazz, “Do we know where we’re going?” Unfortunately, technical difficulties with Rosenwinkel’s axe answered this question for him and kept him from playing during the first half of the tune. Instead, he was bending over and adjusting knobs on his pedal board to yield a response from his weapon. Understandable: Rosenwinkel’s set up appeared complex. His D’Angelico guitar was reformatted to include two quarter inch inputs, each of which I believe was routed independently to neck and bridge guitar pickups. Through these separate chains, he could route different effects to each pickup and create unique tones by playing different regions on his guitar. Tone towards the bridge pickup was softer and had a longer delay tail, while his neck pickup was rounder and with a classic short delay. As Kurt was figuring out how to get all of his contraptions working, he nodded to Revis who held down the groove with authority and impact while Parks took an impromptu solo. After Kurt joined, the tune began its long-form ambient descent.
While soloing, Kurt would often sing the notes he was playing in unison. If he was not miked with a personal headset, I would venture that it was just part of his process in improvisation, but the simultaneous “oohs” combined with his soft and punctuating guitar created a world music vibe–an intentional, new, and interesting layer to Rosenwinkel’s modern guitar jazz. I couldn’t stop thinking about Al Di Meola, and his flute-doubling MIDI pad.
While a surprise at first, Rosenwinkel’s overlayed vocal bursts provided an emphatic touch. I enjoyed it better when he couldn’t keep his mouth up to speed with his fingers and just had to let the guitar do the talking. Strangely, Parks and Revis also both sang along in unison with their solos. Does Kurt require this in order to be in his band?
Nah. I doubt it. He seems too cool. Cool like his tone. I think its horn envy. All the cool kids in jazz play through their mouth, so why can’t we?
Kurt stood upright the whole show with good posture, tough to do with that D’Angelico guitar, shoulders adorned by a stiff navy military coat and donning a matching navy Che Guevara hat. What a revolutionary! Like Kurt’s licks. Just kidding. He’s not that good. Honestly, his fingers move like Eric Johnson, but with denser harmony. OK. So maybe really good. Just not revolutionary, like his hat. My guitar teacher back in Birmingham, Alabama calls Rosenwinkel “scary genius.” I’d say that’s about right. While I feel Rosenwinkel trends away from the ‘revolutionary’ side of things in his choice of harmony, opting for distant and aloof sounding notes to lay over the chord framework rather than radical off notes or transcendent climbs, his knowledge of the fretboard and his athletic leaps and bounds from nut to bridge dizzy and dazzle, and like any guitar virtuoso, he is addicted to speed.
“Star of Jupiter”, sort of a Latin-infused King Crimson number, was a departure from the mellow mood and easily my favorite song of the set. Why? Because I like the major scale and circular riffs and lightning fast sweep picks.
One of the questions that faces most guitarists: On an instrument with relatively little sustain, especially in a jazz setting where, historically, distortion or sustain pedals are discouraged (a fading practice thanks to players like Mike Stern and Rosenwinkel), how does one create the elegiac melodies most possible on a horn. How does one override the horn envy? With chord energy. On “Under It All”, Rosenwinkel surrounded rich chords with simple resonant strums and lingering last notes. With each of Rosenwinkel’s chords comes hours of thought he put into orchestrating those overlaying notes and multiple levels of harmony which complement the leading tone all creating a sound that is dissonant, futuristic, yet resolute. Kurt's chord sequencing results in a truly beautiful ballad.
Compared to my first Rosenwinkel endeavor with his record, Reflections, I was surprised by just how much Kurt maintained his cool in the live setting, especially considering the intensity of his finger-work. At the Vanguard, I wanted Kurt to make me jump out of my seat, and that happened only just a little, primarily during "Star of Jupiter". Maybe I just crave speed and rhythmic intensity, or maybe Kurt's demeanor on record and tone is just representative of his performance and personality overall: distant yet pensive and clad in navy blue.