Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

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.

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.

Chris Potter at the Regattabar, 2nd Set, October 6, 2010

285007703_81fe676758_mFirst thing I noticed was that Chris Potter doesn’t have an iPhone. He took a call right before the set and it looked like he just had one of those free phones, or maybe a Blackberry. A Blackberry would make sense – as one of the leading tenors of the day, he’s got a business to run – but, somehow, an iPhone would have made more sense.

Chris Potter plays with the precision, force and lucidity that I associate with Stan Getz. His harmonic conception is palpably modern stemming as it does from Coltrane, of course, but even more obviously, at least to these ears, from Wayne Shorter. Last night he led the band through a set comprised primarily of new and, as Potter pointed out, untitled compositions, many reminiscent of the cyclical openness of Shorter’s mid-sixties work, though one at least, the last number, sounding fairly Zawinul-esque.

In other words, the evening provided a healthy dose of melodic and spacious dynamism that was simultaneously grounded, cerebral, and even atmospheric.

Last time I saw Potter he was accompanied by the guitarist Adam Rogers and I was struck then by Rogers’ mastery of myriad styles from bebop to fusion to funk-rock. Last night, I had a similar feeling about Potter’s talent; he has obviously subsumed the dominant tenor strains of the last fifty years and continues to deploy and forge them into a deliberate and individualized sound.

The main challenge for someone at Potter’s level of playing is not sounding too much like any of the guys he could sound like. Following in Shorter’s footsteps helps him do this since the latter’s career was literally born in Coltrane’s shadow (Trane had recommended him as a replacement for himself to Miles). Shorter of course, whose playing in the 60s bears some un-mistakable Trane-isms, went on to build a towering body of work characterized by a nuanced, engaging and distinctive vision. Potter’s oeuvre, for its part, remains a compellingly evolved work in progress.

Potter did sound sort of Trane-y at times, especially on one self-penned ballad. In fact, he even took the band on an extended, Eastern modal workout right out of Trane’s playbook. I was glad to see him take the head with his tenor but, inevitably, he reached for the soprano and I thought we were moving straight into imitative homage territory. I was pleasantly surprised, however. Potter’s soprano tone was more in the controlled, Jan Garbarek vein and, in fact, highlighted by contrast the helter-skelter, jittery and frantic nature of Trane’s.

Potter’s supporting cast featured Larry Grenadier on bass, Edward Simon on piano, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Grenadier is a pro – thoughtful, lyrical, focused. Marcus Gilmore is full of energy and ideas and a deft juggler of simultaneously independent rhythmic flows and phrases. Simon produced endlessly beautiful and absorbing tableaux which, unfortunately, I was not always able to adequately descry, seated as I was some five feet behind the cauldron of Gilmore’s drum kit.

A young Berklee kid sat down next to me right before things jumped off. We were chatting and he asked me if “I played.” I’ve been playing guitar for over thirty years but I’m so self-conscious about my abilities that I responded, “Ah, I’m just a hacker. A journeyman.”

Later, as the band kicked in and I started to get a little lost in the music, I realized I should have told him the truth: I’m a latter-day beatnik jazz mystic type of guy. Ever since I heard Coltrane’s Ascension, I knew that jazz was a portal into the All, a complex and transient exploration of the infinite Now. When I hear jazz live, I’m looking for a hit of that.

And frankly, listening to Chris Potter’s angular, sinewy, but fleshed out and utterly human solos, and everything the band did around and through them, I got my fix.

Image source: Olivier Bruchez.