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Kurt Rosenwinkel: Pushing the Boundaries of Modern Jazz Guitar



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Jazz Guitar Today’s Bob Bakert talks to Kurt Rosenwinkel. Full interview on video.

Bob Bakert, Editor of Jazz Guitar Today: While I was a student studying jazz guitar at GSU with students less than half my age, the “modern” guitarist that literally all of them held in the highest esteem was Kurt Rosenwinkel. Kurt has been out in front pushing boundaries so much that JGT wanted him for our inaugural issue. We thought that he exemplifies Jazz Guitar Today.  We are very proud to finally present to you Kurt Rosenwinkel… please enjoy our conversation. Full conversation on Video.

Transcription and edit by Bob Bakert:

Bob: You are eclectic, to say the least. I’m watching on YouTube with the orchestra, I’m watching you with the big band, I’m watching with Joey DeFrancesco (organ) and Christian McBride (bass). I was listening to you with the “Standards” trio. Pretty amazing actually. What’s interesting that I love about your approach is you treat the guitar in most cases, like a musical instrument and not like the guitar.    You’re a member of the orchestra, but you are also the soloist on that orchestral piece or a big band piece, but you are an ensemble musical instrument and that’s, unusual. I know that sounds really weird to say, but to me that’s unusual.  The way you go about your melodic approach, you honor all of the other instruments. 

Kurt: Thank you. Yeah, absolutely! I always feel that whether you’re a soloist or any other role in the band that everybody’s function all the time is to make everybody else sound as good as you can. I feel if I’m soloing, I’m actually accompanying the rhythm section. I like to flip it so that you don’t feel like you’re being just supported and then you’re just flying on top of what’s going on. But rather, I’m comping for the people who are comping for me, that’s what it feels like.  

Kurt’s latest album on Heartcore Records – Angels Around

Bob: Well, that was really apparent to me. I was watching the zoom piece with the full orchestra.  That had to be a challenge and fun at the same time. 

Kurt: It was amazing how fast it actually came together – faster than it would have if we had to organize everybody – to go to the same place and actually record in a room. Basically, we had the idea and I contacted my friends, Philippe Maniez, who wrote the arrangement. He wrote the arrangement in three days, he contacted all the musicians, sent them the score and something to play. In two and a half weeks we had it back. I put my part on there and then we mixed it. The longest job was doing the video, which Michaela and her boyfriend did, that took the longest time – I guess, about a week and a half. 

Kurt (continued): And then it was finished. It was really amazing. Actually, we were amazed at the sound of the orchestra, it came together very easily when we started mixing it, we just put all the faders up and everybody’s part just really just fell into place. And it sounded beautiful… it was surprising!

Kurt: So, you know, we decided to do something in lockdown times, something to bring people together and just make a project for people to become involved in.  So we decided to make an arrangement of one of my songs and make an orchestral arrangement and send it out to a lot of musicians that we know and to have them play on it and then bring it back to, HQ and mix it and make a video of it where, everybody’s recording themselves. So the end result is the whole orchestra on the screen together. And this performance of this, of this song with this beautiful arrangement.

Bob: It’s pretty amazing.  For those of you who might not know, it’s like a big zoom meeting, like you’re all in a big zoom conference call. It’s like the ultimate version of Hollywood squares for musicians. 

Bob: It was about 30 pieces or so?

Kurt: I think it was more like 60 – yes, there were probably 60 of them for sure.  It’s the full orchestra! 

Bob:  Let’s talk about the big band project that you were involved in. 

Kurt: Yeah, sure. You’re talking about OJM and in Portugal, right Yes. The OJM band is based in Porto Portugal.  And it’s a great big band that I’ve been working with for about 13 years. And 10 years ago, we made an album called Our Secret World. It was a wonderful adventure with them, and I’m really proud of that album. The directors of the band called me up and said that the 10th anniversary of the album is coming up and if I would come and perform a concert over there. So, that’s what we did. I went over there, we had one rehearsal and we did the concert and it was just wonderful to play. And played for a socially distance audience – it was a blast and it was live streams. And we played all the material from the record and the, and a few other songs that we’ve been developing since that time. 

Kurt Rosenwinkel & OJM-Our Secret World from 2009

Kurt (continued): I think we’re going to do another record next year… it was just beautiful. it’s a wonderful band. They’re such a tight-knit family and they have a really warm sound. That’s something nice in a big band because big bands can be very large and kind of cold sometimes – this band just has a really warm, intimate kind of sound with each other and a really beautiful feeling, amongst the people. So it’s a project that I love to be a part of.  It was amazing. It was just a blessing to be able to go over there and play at all during this time. So it was really felt great. And I thought the streaming came out wonderful. Actually, it sounded so much better than it sounded in the hall because the band was socially distanced as well. Everybody’s facing a different direction. 

OJM & Kurt Rosenwinkel: 10th anniversary of “Our Secret World”

Bob: That definitely can be a challenge. You know, funny thing about big bands is when big bands have been together a long time, they do develop a voice and you can really tell that from a big band a bunch of guys who show up at the gig and read off charts.  They can play the charts, all these guys are pros and whenever I hear big bands, they’re usually very good musicians. But, there’s a difference between, let’s say 15 or 18 talented musicians playing charts and 15 to 18 to 20  musicians that have been playing together for a while. 

Kurt: Yeah, just this morning, I was listening to a mood Indigo by Duke Ellington’s band. And that is a perfect example of that. I mean, Oh my God, the character…!

Bob: And then you turn the page and there you are in the organ trio setting, just laying down some, excuse my expression, laying down some sh%#. You’re showing the folks back home that you didn’t forget you’re from Philadelphia!

Kurt: Oh, definitely, definitely deep Philly, man, deep for sure. That was so much fun to reconnect with those guys. And, you know, we hadn’t played since high school together, so it was just a blast and it was just big love on the stage every night, every set and, you know, just overflowing with joy and love and fun playing. And we just had a ball and was a really, a deep, wonderful time, just really a joyful time. I think everybody felt it in the room and it was just wonderful to just have a ball like that and just really enjoy and go deep and really just bring it home. That was, as good as it gets,

Kurt Rosenwinkel, Joey DeFrancesco, Christian McBride, Lil’ John Roberts – Philly Reunion Show

Bob: That was like fricking ridiculous. How good that was…!!! And those guys on the stage with you. I mean, I don’t like to be too hyperbolic on stuff, but I was, I mean, fricking’ Joey DeFrancesco, Christian McBride, yourself, and Lil’ John Roberts. 

Bob (continued): It was just crazy what’s going on that stage,  It was just awesome. So how do you, flip gears like that in your own head. I mean just, the chops that are required to do what you did on that stage and those pieces are just ridiculous. I mean, your articulation is flawless and I have no idea what that tempo was, but damn it was, it was smoking one particular tune and your articulation is completely flawless. So, I know that’s got nothing to do with your harmony choices, your lines, and everything else, the phrasing and the whole thing, but that level of playing still requires, I mean, are you, are you practicing every day like that I mean, do you, do you think about your chops when you, when you’re con could you compose you play piano, you do all these things, but you rip that off. Like, like shredders wish they could, man. It was pretty amazing. Actually. Do you, are you conscious of your shot, chop still Are you still something you still work on?

Kurt: Yeah, a fair bit. There are definitely places that I, that I want to get to that kind of working on more in my mind than actually on the instrument. Just trying to visualize the kind of space, the improvisational space that I want to occupy, and how that is technically possible. And what I do is I work on sound a lot when I’m at home alone – because the sound and the response is the thing that unlocks the doors to being free and being able to handle something like fast tempos, or just be able to express the way that I want to, regardless of how complicated it is. Just from a sonic point.

Bassist Dario Deidda, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson 

Bob: So What are you doing today?

Kurt: Tons of stuff – really busy moment. I’m involved in so many things.  I have my record label, Heartcore Records and we have several things going on at the moment. I’m producing an album for a wonderful artists in Brazil and his name is Daniel Santiago.  I’m producing his album and that is almost getting, is almost ready to mix. So it’s a really exciting time. All of the last touches of the recording for all the songs are being done and we’re flying things back and forth between Berlin and Brasilia. And that’s a beautiful, beautiful album, Clapton is playing on one song. And, so I’m doing that and also getting ready to mix a solo piano album I recorded in the lockdown of me playing solo piano. 

Bob: It’s really funny that you say that because one of my friends, and I did not know that you’re a piano player of that caliber, said, ask him about his piano playing and composition. And I thought about it,  And he further said, yeah, he’s as good a piano player as he, as a guitar player and his compositions you can tell are very pianistic and composed on piano. But I thought “I’m not going to ask him about piano…” 

Kurt:  Leave that to the piano magazines. (laughs) 

Kurt: Yes, basically you can tell that a lot of my songs were written on piano, so, I’m doing the composer’s version of those songs, the way that they were written.  And, so that’s fun!  I’m also involved in doing a project for hardcore records, which is involved with, re-releasing and re remixing and remastering my album, “Hardcore”. This is something that’s been a dream of mine for a while. so we licensed the album from Verve records from Universal Music. Yeah. That’s an album that I put out in 2003 and I always felt like it could benefit from a more, updated mix and master because it was recorded and mixed all in my apartment, you know, in 2002 when I hardly had any equipment or, you know, and then, you know, my skills have improved and everything so really want to remix and remaster that also there’s a song on that album called love in the modern world, which was intended to be an orchestral piece. 

Kurt (continued): And on the record, it’s a kind of a mini-orchestra and now we’re going to do the version of the full orchestra.  I’m been doing masterclasses. And so those are really cool.  We do a deep dive into composition and that is a wonderful chance to formulate my philosophies, and conceptions and techniques, of composing, so I wrote a little book for that… like a 40-page book.  We did a whole fully produced presentation. It was about two and a half hours long,  going through a lot of my songs. And we’re going to do another one coming up, for guitar, just guitar technique, and guitar, everything guitar. So, look out for that. 

For the complete Kurt Rosenwinkel interview – check out the video…

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