The Kurt Rosenwinkel New Quartet Live at The Village Vanguard
Kurt Rosenwinkel (Guitar), Aaron Parks (piano), Orlando LeFlemming (bass), Allan Mednard (drums)
Our Secret World
Use of Light
A Shifting Design
Isle of Everything (Parks)
In a master class, Kurt Rosenwinkel sums up his writing process by saying, “I hone in on the quality of mood … and try to get back to it with my own music.” He references a Picasso quote to explain:
Why should I try to imitate nature? I might just as well try to trace a perfect circle. What I have to do is utilize as best I can the ideas which objects suggest to me, connect, fuse, and color in my way the shadows they cast in me, illumine them from the inside.
Picasso, channeling Plato, argues that there is some kind of “idea," or essence, or pure form, behind the "objects" we perceive in nature. The goal of art should be to illuminate the inner essence of the world -- the true nature of nature — not trace its outward appearance. Kurt’s process is similar: music is a way to conjure a "quality of mood," the form beyond the form. At the center of each song are a set of ideas and feelings. The nuts and bolts of the music, and its formal elements, are means of representing some kind of essence, some kind of central meaning from which the song emanates.
These “moods,” inner meanings and essences are probably beyond conceptual and definitely ineffable: the means are musical and the ends are musical. But they are reflected in the titles (though often songs are played for a long time before they are named) and range from feelings (“Deja Vu,” “Sedated,” a new tune), qualities (“Portugese,” “Use of Light,” “Dream of Old,” “Flute,” “Samba!”), designs (“A Shifting Design,” “Cubism,” “Filters,”) places and times (“View From Moscow,” “Heavenly Bodies,” “Something Sometimes,” “Brooklyn Sometimes,” “Star of Jupiter,” “Our Secret World”), and people (“Zhivago,” “Gesture Lester,” “Mr. Hope,” “Hommage A Mitch”). Parks – who contributed “Isle of Everything” to the set list -- writes with certain images in mind (as in Invisible Cinema) or, more recently, Jungian archetypes. Either way, the intent of the music is not only to play fast or pretty, but to manifest an idea that transcends any one passage or phrase. This can be done many ways, and the goal, it seems, is for each member of the band to find a way to capture the subject with their “own sounds” in as many variations as possible. As Coltrane says:
There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.
Kurt’s songs are vehicles for this continuous clarifying process. "My songs have forced me to grow as a player and helped me develop my style," he says. "When you're writing, what you hear is not limited by what you can play. If people thought about it, they'd realize that they can hear beyond their abilities on their instrument." Like Coltrane, he uses his songs as vehicles to discover “new sounds.” The true emanation of a song, then, isn’t the structure itself but the process of finding new ways to tap into its essence through self-discovery. Patterns are not just patterns, chords not just chords, new sounds are not just sounds, they are ways to illuminate the “pure state” of ourselves to ourselves. They are “the best of what we are."
Since we are always changing, music requires constant rediscovery. The soul-searching process is most literal in Kurt's unaccompanied intros, where he arrives upon the song's central motif through his musical stream of consciousness. The strong emotion they elicit from the listener arises not only from a vivid progression or stunning array, but from vicarious self-illumination. (Multiply this by a factor of four, and you get the Kurt Rosenwinkel Quartet.) Improvisation is a great equalizer between the audience and the musician, since both are taking part in the thrills, surprises and insights that are laid bare as the musicians find their way through the mystery.
Another area of discovery and refinement is the pedal board. It’s become so complex that it requires a two-unit system: one board with switches connected to a case of the pedals themselves. Kurt is a guitar mixologist, creating new sounds by detailed layering of several effects. He recently concocted a flute-like sound through a combination of a pedal that softens the pick attack, another that modulates the guitar a couples octaves higher (perhaps the HOG), and a touch of reverb for fluidity. High-octane songs like “Zhivago” were ideal vehicles for him to explore its possibilities; the effect bends the physics of the guitar and even the physics of the song. When he shoots lines into the stratosphere, as he does at the end of this tune, he reaches the height of the universe. (It reminds me of Coltrane’s soprano saxophone solos.) This, in particular, gave Mednard room to play louder and make heavy use of the cymbal. (And he likes to play really loud.) When he fires off a succession of sweeps, they are twice as glowing and sheetlike. I remember distinctly a passage in the last take of Zhivago where he warped a shooting four-note-per-string pattern, ahead of the beat, accelerating both in speed and pitch. The flute effect’s fluidity (combined with a robotic variation of a tremolo effect phased in through a volume pedal) creates a feeling of elasticity in time, and he can play so fast that melodic lines lose their moment and morph into a chordal texture.
Listening to the band as a whole, you get the sense that every player is equally invested in the process of discovery. As Justin Faulkner (a drummer in former groupings of the New Quartet) says, “[W]ith Kurt’s band, you find exploration. He gives you the map, but you know there might be a left turn or a right turn, or a detour. And there are certain changes where you just hope for the best.” What Faulkner is describing may be structural as well as philosophical. Songs are spaces. Like buildings, they are intended to facilitate some use, some function. Chords, grooves, bass motifs, hits, and melodies can create an environment that enables musicians to be open, present, and inventive while pursuing the essence of the tune in their own way.
Like Kurt’s tunes, Coltrane’s three-tonic system songs (Giant Steps et al.) are vehicles for the improviser to find new sounds and explore a new type of harmonic language. But the rigid structure of Giant Steps or Countdown limits the options for the improviser. Coltrane’s transition to modal and free jazz was motivated by a need for more improvisational freedom. Kurt’s music is a balance of these two approaches. Rosenwinkel developed his own distinctive harmonic language, consistent in various forms across his original material, but the changes are laid out to balance openness with fast-paced and sinuous harmony.
Take "Flute," for example. Rosenwinkel's solos gathered energy by increasing in velocity, length, and volatility. In contrast, Parks, utilized rhythmic and textural capacities of the song to enliven the song's compelling groove, drumming with chords and orchestrating with Mednard’s percussive energy. Both approaches bring out specific facets of the song's potential. I speculate that some quality of the layout of the harmonies allows for this dynamism. In the latter part of the chord cycle there is friction in the harmony, which compels musicians to ratchet up intensity, but the changes are not so rapid that they demand a player to solo one way or another. The result is that chords provide an environment to be explored while still guiding them clearly, so that the song allows them to take unexpected detours and "hear beyond their own abilities.”
Kurt introduced a couple new songs, a visceral samba groove piece entitled “Samba!” and a plush ballad called “Sedated.” Like some of his recent work (“Kurt 1,” “Star of Jupiter,” “Bass Place,” “Night Blues,” “Spirit Kiss,” “Heavenly Bodies” and the like) they are minimalist and spacious. Parks’ “Isle of Everything” is exotic and adventurous. Its title was the inspiration for some funny moments. “Isle of Everything” is a double entendre; sounding like “I Love Everything” (which could be a play on the standard “Everything I Love”). But one night, randomly, Rosenwinkel announced the song as “Island of Carrots.” And then the next night: “this next song is about… carrots.” During the last night, one clever audience member yelled out “Costco” after realizing you could also interpret the title as “Aisle of Everything” (Kurt replied: “you can find carrots there”). The Rosenwinkel Quartet engages in a deep, immersive, maybe even spiritual experience, but you can tell they’re having fun at the same time.
There’s a lot more I could talk about, but I’ll leave it at this for now: I heard nearly every set of the week and there was hardly a second where the band wasn't taking risks in the interest of exploring new possibilities. You can hear them develop, on refined level, night after night, both individually and collectively. Inevitably this results in an occasional misstep (Mednard was brilliant and daring, for instance, but sometimes at the expense of drowning out the rest of the band with his expansive cymbal sound) but I much prefer a couple insignificant slip-ups to a perfect but safe performance. The music is intense, the scope is deep, and, hearing the songs night after night — some of them over fifteen years old — they are always alive and evolving.