Matthew T Grant

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Tall Guy. Glasses.

Two Shows: Kurt Rosenwinkel and Chris Potter, Regattabar, March 2013

It’s been a week since I saw Chris Potter play with his quartet (David Virelles (p), Larry Grenadier (b), Nate Smith (d)) and two weeks since I saw Kurt Rosenwinkel with his (Aaron Parks (p), Eric Revis (b), Justin Faulkner (d)) and I’ve been wrestling with how best to describe what made these shows so different and, not to put too fine a point on it, why the Chris Potter show was so much better.

Top of Their Game

The most obvious reason, I guess, is that Potter’s band is just better. Larry Grenadier (picture above) is a “best of his generation” bass player, David Virelles is as rhythmically inventive and harmonically adventurous as they come, and Nate Smith plays drums in a way that is commandingly funky as well as surprisingly understated (he played a solo that built so slowly and massively that he was halfway into it before you knew what was happening).

To top it all off, of course, is Chris Potter himself. Combining a pop sensibility (that reminds me of Stan Getz, though Potter sounds nothing like him) with a protean mastery of the instrument, Potter can be at turns lyrical and wild, brainy and melodic. And whether it’s a question of his acumen as a leader or the collective intelligence of the ensemble, the group moved effortlessly with him and around him into realms that seemed both uncharted and sublimely familiar, as if we had been transported to a 80s era Brecker Brothers New York funk throw-down infused with an unheard of at the time nuanced modernism.

Long story short, Potter’s set was energetic, energizing and everything I want when I go see live jazz: amazing musicians playing astonishing, improvised music.

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Kurt Rosenwinkel Revisited

I saw Kurt Rosenwinkel and his New Quartet (Aaron Parks, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Justin Faulkner, drums) last night at the Regattabar, almost a year to the day after I last saw him with his “old” quartet. While it took a couple numbers for the house to get the sound together (which seemed a little odd given this was the fourth set of a two day stand), this ended up being a capitivating and even beautiful performance.

Kurt continues to play with an astonishing fluidity and a marked lack of cliche; he also remains the master of the cascading, intricate pattern and the loping, open-ended composition reminiscent of Wayne Shorter. He tends towards an “atmospheric” tone that combines, at turns, chorus, delay, and distortion with a somewhat odd tendency to sing the lines as he plays them (he wore a mic to pick up these vocalizations). At times distracting, this sing-a-long approach did add an ethereal depth to his playing.

When I last saw him, I lamented that the group didn’t really shine as an ensemble. With this group, while it is definitely Kurt’s, it felt more like a band. Once they hit their stride, they really rocked.

My mystical tendencies seek transcendence in musical performance. Given the brainy, secular approach taken by Rosenwinkel, any transcendence on offer is strictly of the cool, technical variety.

That being said, this group, at its best, achieved something even more compelling: an immanent intensity rooted in the Now, focused on the openness of the moment, and imbued with a refreshingly human warmth.

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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.

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