Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

The Curious Case of Kurt Rosenwinkel

When I saw Kurt Rosenwinkel’s quartet the other night at the Regattabar I was disappointed.

It wasn’t that the performance failed to meet my expectations. The musicians—Rosenwinkel on guitar; Aaron Goldberg, piano; Ugonna Okegwo, bass; Ted Poor, drums—played a complex, cybernetic bebop with, at times, exquisite virtuosity, especially on the part of Goldberg. Rosenwinkel himself is an inspired and inventive soloist whose advanced melodic conception, technically sculpted tone, and what I can only call “sense of drama” made for moments of truly involving musicality.

No, it was not a case of expectations unmet but, rather, of hopes unfulfilled. For what had I hoped? Well, like I said, I’ve seen some pretty good bands lately, bands who played with intensity, sublimity and immediacy and by whom I was alternately astonished and amazed. In fact, I liken such performances to being present at the birth of a god or, at least, at the ecstatic invocation of an all-pervading, otherworldly presence.

I’m the first to admit that this is a lot to ask. This is only music, after all, and these guys are, in the end, simply talented human beings who are good at playing it. In fact, you could think of young(ish) men choosing to play jazz nowadays as akin to antique car enthusiasts or dedicated historical reenactors—not shamans or mystics, but, well, nerdy and gifted craftsmen.

At the same time, I’m not necessarily calling for a return to the acid-fueled days of Coltrane’s Om or Interstellar Space (though that might not be such a bad thing), nor do I think the leading lights of contemporary jazz need to find gurus and get all Mahavishnu on themselves. Nevertheless, there was something that heroic doses of powerful hallucinogens or submission to a spiritual teacher frequently wrought and that was ego-death. And it was this sense of ego-less-ness that was conspicuously missing when I saw Kurt Rosenwinkel, leading to my aforementioned disappointment.

Ego-death isn’t easy, particularly when the thing you are trying to accomplish (like playing jazz well) demands a level of mastery few humans actually attain, which I guess is why it’s that much more impressive when you do eventually encounter it. Setting aside spiritual discipline, the best players achieve it via a commitment and investment in collaborative, collective expression. In such cases, you don’t feel like you’re seeing a virtuoso soloist with accompaniment (although these cats—Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Joe Lovano, Charles Lloyd, etc.—are undeniably virtuosos); you feel like your seeing a band.

I don’t know why it was, but Rosenwinkel’s quartet rarely gelled into that kind of mesmerizing meta-entity. There were moments (these guys are pros, after all), such as during their rendition of Mark Turner’s “Casa Oscura,” or sometimes when the rhythm section took flight, but for the most part we were treated to some spectacular instances of individual brilliance (and, for good or ill, guitar heroics) and not much more. (To be fair, part of the problem was the sound mix: Goldberg’s piano was frequently too hot/bright and Okegwo’s bass was perpetually too muddy. That being said, Rosenwinkel’s guitar sound was utterly perfect throughout, though perhaps it was this contrast that highlighted the disjointedness.)

But here’s the funny thing. Even though the performance I saw left me unsatisfied (primarily because I never felt overwhelmed and swept away by it—in other words, the show left my own hapless ego intact when, for my money, I prefer to experience it’s erasure), in the days since I’ve been drawn again and again to Rosenwinkel’s music, scouring the interwebs for any live performances I could find and finding in them again and again an inspiring and original musical vision.

This lingering allure is more than anything else testimony to the fact that Rosenwinkel is, without a doubt, a modern master. What he needs, in my humble, egoless opinion, is a band in which this mastery can be appropriately sublimated. When that happens, it will become, I truly believe, something (that takes us) infinitely higher.

Image Source: Rosco57.

Joe Lovano, Regattabar, October 14, 2010

Das Ganze ist das Unwahre. – Theodor Adorno

It was some months ago now that I saw Joe Lovano and the Us Five band (pianist James Weidman, bassist Peter Slavov, who was filling in for the suddenly famous Esperanza Spalding, and drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela) at the Regattabar. At the time I thought they were the best jazz band I’d ever seen. Why?

First of all, they had the most beautifully organic sound with a wild spaciousness to it. It was also like being in a bohemian atelier or beat workshop with the music bouncing and reflecting off paintings and posters, bottles and tables, windows and alleys. Or, at times, like being on a pirate ship or a fishing boat. Wood. Space. Heat. Earth. Light. Etc.

Second of all, they were playing, with real mastery and joy, also, in an early sixties/late fifties style that was disciplined and structured (in like a Mingus way) and, at the same time, casually intense and free (i.e., played with a kind of abandon verging on the wanton).

Third, there was Lovano himself. With his hat and his sunglasses and his soul patch he was the textbook jazz cat—really archetypical, man. He’s got a warm, sculpted tone, has a concept that’s dense, mellow, focused, and figured, and sometimes goes for the raggedy, fraying-into-madness sound of 1961-ish Trane (remaining, for all that, on the homage side of mimicry).

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Two and a Half Thoughts on Charlie Sheen

I’ve recently become obsessed with Charlie Sheen.

This obsession—which is far from mine alone—must be understood against the backdrop of current events.

On the one hand, there is the spectacular political turmoil in the “Arab World,” whereby the successful regime change in Tunisia and Egypt has been followed by increasingly violent responses from the state in Algeria, Bahrain, Oman, and, of course, Libya.

On the other hand, here in the United States, we’re seeing exactly what Republican majorities and Republican executives are focused on: pressing their advantage to take on both the socio-economic programs of the Obama administration as well as organized labor (particularly in the form of public employee unions—the second to last bastion of unionism in the United States) and, apparently, women.

In other words, millions rising up against autocratic rulers in the face of mounting violence on the one hand, and “revolution from above” as the wealthy move to eviscerate the only real obstacles to their dominance here at home: unions and the democratic state apparatus.

So what does Charlie Sheen have to do with this and why, for example, would anyone compare him to Colonel Ghaddafi?

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