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Like a River: Kurt Rosenwinkel on his new band of old friends

Kurt Rosenwinkel
David Kaufman
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Kurt Rosenwinkel performing at the 2017 Montreal Jazz Festival.

Kurt Rosenwinkel, the incalculably influential guitarist and composer, can always be trusted to seek out new challenges. Last year he released a solo piano album, ratifying his commitment to an instrument that he’d always kept within reach. His new release is The Chopin Project, a collaboration with Swiss pianist Jean-Paul Brodbeck that reinvents Chopin’s music for an acoustic jazz quartet.

Rosenwinkel is now out on the road with a quartet of his own, featuring Aaron Parks on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Greg Hutchinson on drums. From one angle it suggests an all-star band; from another, it’s a cohort of musicians who share an understanding of Rosenwinkel’s sound world. He has composed ambitious new music for the group, which he considers a brand-new project despite the familiarity among the players. The quartet appears at Chris' Jazz Cafe on Friday and Saturday; see more dates here.

Earlier this week I spoke with Rosenwinkel over Zoom to talk about the tour and his relationship to the Philly scene. He connected from Portland, Maine, where he was wrapping up a vacation. Watch the full interview or read an edited transcript below.

Kurt Rosenwinkel with Nate Chinen

This is an incredible band – and they’re musicians with whom you have a lot of history. How would you characterize the chemistry between the four of you?

Greg and I have been playing a lot in the past several years; we go back to the ‘90s, in New York. There’s a really deep connection, a beautiful feeling, and great power that I find playing with Greg live. We’ve been playing mostly standards, so I'm really psyched to play original music together.

Yeah.

Aaron Parks and I go way back as well. He was in my band for a long time, and I miss him so much. He’s such an incredible musician. I love the sound that he brings to the music, and the touch, and the spirit. It’s beautiful.

I have fond memories of hearing Aaron with your band at The Village Vanguard. There’s always a spirit of lift when the two of you play together.

He’s such a unique voice and such a brilliant, wonderful musician. So I'm really excited to be back in action with Aaron again, and also with Eric Revis – we go way back as well. Deep connection, and many albums and many tours and years together. We were active when I released my album Star of Jupiter in 2012, and we toured a lot together with Justin Faulkner on drums. So there is a thread of history with that music for this new group. But I consider it a new project.

How so?

Well, it’s a different time, and everybody’s in a different place, and it’s all different music. With Greg, that’s a totally different chemistry there, too. So I consider it a totally different band.

Have you written new music for this group, or are you mostly going back to your songbook?

We’re playing a mix of some of the old stuff and some all-new material. There are about nine songs that are new. And we’re going to be recording a new album at The Village Vanguard with this band.

That’s fantastic news.

Yeah. So it’s new music. Some of it has been played before, but none of it’s been recorded before. I’m really looking forward to getting this new repertoire down and on a new album, it’s going to be really cool. I’m excited about it.

With this new material, do you feel that you’ve opened a new door in some way? Are you exploring different ideas, or is it more like a refinement?

It’s an exciting question mark for me, because I’ve never played this music all together before. So I’m thinking about the flow of the set and how the music is going to make us feel as a whole, you know? There are a lot of complex songs. And then there are progressive songs that go methodically through this sort of metaphysical world of moments and vistas and compositional exposition – you know, where it moves to different places and and resolves into valleys and goes through the woods. There’s a lot of landscape to the songs. I would say that that might be a key to this music. I’m looking forward to discovering it as we play it.

When I think about the concept behind Star of Jupiter, it was very cosmic, looking to the heavens. So to hear you describe this as a landscape, it’s like you’re bringing that exploration down to an earthly realm.

Awesome. I like it. Yeah.

So let’s talk about Chris’ Jazz Cafe for a moment, because this is not just another date on your tour. You have a deep connection with that room; I understand you got married at Chris’ last year.

Yeah, last September.

Well, congratulations!

Thanks so much. We were just spending some time up in Provincetown in Cape Cod for our anniversary before this tour. We got married at Chris’ Jazz. And you know, it’s like family: everybody there is so cool, and I’ve been playing there for so long. My relationship with the booker, Al McMahon, goes back to when I was very young and he was one of the first guys who was giving me any gigs. I love the room. I love to come back and just give what I can, and share. Somehow, you want to give even more – even though I’m always giving 110 percent. That’s what I learned when I was working at the chicken shop: the guy said, ‘Hey, Kurt, you’re never gonna make it in the chicken business if you don't give 110%.’ So I always give 110, but in Philly it’s like 120.

The idea that you’ve got to bring it – I know you learned that not only from elders on the scene in Philly, but also from your peers. And a few weeks ago we lost two musicians who meant a lot to you, for different reasons.

Yeah.

That week began with the loss of Monette Sudler, and it ended with the loss of Joey DeFrancesco. Could you talk about these two incredible artists and what they meant to you?

Growing up in Philly, there are so many amazing musicians that you come into contact with. I feel so grateful to have had my eyes open to jazz guitar by hearing Monette Sudler play. Meeting her, and her being so encouraging, and me being so enamored with her sound. She was playing a [Gibson] 335, and I think that was the first time I ever saw anybody playing a 335 style of guitar. It was just super inspiring. So that was something that had a big impression on me when I was a young kid coming up in Philly.

I’m sure that it did.

And then I transferred out of Central High School my junior year, to go to Creative and Performing Arts. Central was an academic high school, and I just wanted to play guitar and play music. So I transferred into CAPA, and there I encountered Joey DeFrancesco and Christian McBride just tearing it up in the basement on upright piano. Mind-blowing music, you know, just unbelievable. And I think anybody who was exposed to them – especially people our age at that time – that just immediately set the bar so high. It was very shocking, you know, to see what they were doing at that age. And it was really motivating for me. Even though I haven’t seen Joey for a long time, he’s kind of always in the back of my mind, saying ‘Be the best that you can be.’ You know: ‘Go for the highest imagination of yourself and what you can do.’

Absolutely.

And it’s one thing to hear the records, but it’s another thing to see somebody doing that, right in front of you. Playing at that high level. It really brings it home that this is possible, physically, in that space, in that moment. It is possible to achieve something great in this life. So yeah, Joey’s been a real big part of my life for that reason. I would say that that was formative for me, even though I’ve always been completely obsessed with music. Just in terms of what’s possible on the instrument, you know?

I wonder too, what you can say about the attitude? Because when I think about Joey at that age, there’s a quality he has. Christian has it too. It’s this kind of radiant sound outpouring – where there’s so much intuition and information coming out of the instrument. It’s a form of communication, and it’s got all this joy in it.

Yeah, I’ve always admired how ebullient and joyous Joey was while playing music. He was always having the best time, just laughing and smiling, very vocal. Just enjoying the whole thing. That’s a beautiful perspective to have on music. I think everybody has their own way of expressing themselves and radiating, like you said; I think that’s a great word. And yeah, Christian too. Always having a great time, which is really infectious and makes you just love to listen and love to play. That’s why I was so happy to have the opportunity to come together with those cats when we did our Philly reunion week at the Blue Note in 2020.

We hadn’t played together since high school – and even, remarkably, Joey and Christian didn’t play that much together, though they were the closest of friends. To have that coming together and playing with them and feeling that infectious joy – that wonderful abandon and enjoyment of life and music – it that was a great experience. And Lil John Roberts was playing drums and he was part of our upbringing in Philly.

When I think about that reunion, first of all I’m so glad that it happened before lockdown. But it also makes me think about this moment of reunion and reflection. Just last week, Joshua Redman’s quartet, with Christian and Brian Blade and Brad Mehldau, released more music from their reunion.

Right.

You all came up together, you were at Smalls at the same time, started getting record deals right around the same time. Now there are generations of players that look up to you. What are your thoughts about that shift?

Yeah: Life. One of the cool things about having more years under my belt is the process of watching people develop through their lives, and develop their music. To see what happens with people and how they grow, what they’re able to achieve. You know, Brad is absolutely incredible, and he’s always been, and he keeps on adding rooms to his house, and they’re all beautiful.

Yeah.

And it’s great to be able to collaborate more, more, and more, and again and again, with my peers and these amazing musicians that I came up with. I see it as a continuum: I mean, it’s the same as it was before, we’re just in a different place in our lives. But I think everybody is doing the same thing as we were doing back then. Our place in the continuum moves forward, and new generations come up behind us. It’s nice to feel that you’re also part of this family of tradition that moves forward like a river.

The Kurt Rosenwinkel Quartet appears Sept. 14 in Portsmouth, NH; Sept. 15 in Montreal; Sept. 16 and 17 in Philadelphia; and Sept. 19 and 20 in Oberlin. The group performs at The Village Vanguard from Sept. 27 to Oct. 2.

Nate Chinen has been writing about jazz for more than 25 years.