Guitarist and composer Kurt Rosenwinkel has been hailed as one of a handful of rebels helping to revitalize jazz. The 39-year-old, who grew up in the U.S. but now lives in Berlin, has earned respect for his inventive original tunes. But on Reflections, his latest release, he concentrates on standards.
For the past decade or so, Rosenwinkel has been on a tear, writing and recording intense, challenging original music for small jazz groups. His pieces are decidedly unusual, flecked with strange harmonies and abrupt changes of mood. And they're held together by oddly beautiful melodies.
Rosenwinkel has cultivated his following by bucking tradition, so I was a bit dismayed to learn about his latest project. It's a set of mostly familiar ballads and jazz standards — the kind of program expected of a tradition-minded jazz musician. It seemed Rosenwinkel was following the conventional path.
Then I heard his version of "Reflections."
Thelonious Monk's piece is usually treated as a kind of sacred text, but Rosenwinkel doesn't play it that way. There's a hint of restlessness in his approach, as if he's determined to find an entirely new language for it.
Rosenwinkel says that after recording lots of his own music — six albums over the past decade — he felt it was time to return to the jazzman's standard repertoire. First, he wanted to gauge how he's evolved as a player, and then to explore how he might change up, and possibly radicalize, these familiar, worn-out and overplayed tunes. He did this old-school style, with minimal preparation: He and his rhythm section played just two gigs before going into the studio.
In addition to the expected war horses, Rosenwinkel seized on tunes that hotshot jazz players rarely attempt, including Wayne Shorter's "Ana Maria," with its fluid melody and heartbreaking chord sequence.
What I hear in this is someone thinking like a composer, shaping a musical narrative one carefully considered phrase at a time. It's a fundamentally different enterprise from the daredevil high-speed babble that usually happens when jazz musicians play standards. They're out to stun with genius technique. Rosenwinkel, a composer first and foremost, wants to illuminate the architectural "soul" of the tunes instead.