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Kurt Rosenwinkel: A Paragon of Modern Jazz

Zakk Jones

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Kurt Rosenwinkel has been the paragon of modern jazz guitar for the better part of 25 years, seamlessly blending tradition with his own ever-evolving approach to sound, harmony, and improvising. You’d be hard-pressed to find a jazz guitarist within the last few decades that hasn’t been influenced by Rosenwinkel or at least been an ardent admirer of him. The thing that I love about his playing and artistry is that it’s always evolving while ultimately sounding like himself in whatever genre and situation you hear him in. For the longest time, I never dug into any of his records, and almost steered clear just because I didn’t know what to make of his playing, between his assertive, angular lines and voice-like tone.

Jazz guitarist and JGT contributor Zakk Jones

I remember very clearly when it clicked for me. A friend of mine sat me down and played a few tracks from his album “The Next Step” (2000), then let me borrow it with the caveat of having to listen to the whole thing as soon as possible.

Yes. Sir. I don’t think I listened to anything else for months! The energy on that record is just a grotesque mix of anger, contemplation, freedom, and a rejection of everything you would normally expect from a jazz guitarist. One of the biggest examples of this is his alternate tuning used on 4 of the 8 cuts from this record, most notably recognized in the opening track “Zhivago”. It’s well documented that although he had found success in many ways up until that point, Kurt was dissatisfied with his relationship to music, the guitar, and improvising. In an effort to break habits, he haphazardly tuned his guitar and started to practice and write in this new sonic territory. To throw a wrench and turn yourself ostensibly into a beginner again shows his dedication and desire to go above and beyond the ordinary. This shift in his musical ethos was captured beautifully on that record, and since then he has of course gone on to redefine himself over and over as a guitarist, singer, bandleader, producer, and educator. In his own words:

“You start off not knowing what you’re doing, then you organize things so they become ordered. When that order becomes static, you have to break it up to create another state of instability, which, in turn, throws you back into chaos. That’s what continuing on to the next step is all about” (Music at Hand, 2017)

This continual process of learning, organizing, implementing then deconstructing is one that sets apart the extraordinary from the great, and I, for one, can’t wait to hear all of the future iterations of this in his playing. From his long tenure with the aggressive free-jazz quartet “Human Feel”, extensive solo discography and a sideman resumé that pans from Paul Motian to Donald Fagen, you would be hard-pressed to find a side of Kurt Rosenwinkel you won’t enjoy.

Recommended Listening:
Zhivago – Zhivago (2000)
Moods – Welcome to Malpesta (Human Feel, 1994)
Chromatic B – Caipi (2017)
The Cloister – Our Secret World (2010)
Ugly Beauty – Angels Around (2020)

Check out the full Jazz Guitar Today video interview with Kurt Rosenwinkel.

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