It might seem like difficult music -- and it is -- but to us it's like we're just having a good old time. I mean it's serious and we're digging deep. It's not light, it's not trivial. I wouldn't say serious, but it's to the depth of the soul and the height of the universe -- that's the scope.
Star Of Jupiter is Kurt Rosenwinkel's first small-combo studio album of new compositions since Deep Song (2005). In that time he's been evolving a different approach to the guitar and the combo format. Since at least 2009 the guitarist has played in quartet format, most often alongside pianist Aaron Parks. At about that time I began to see his quartets on a regular basis, in New York and Boston, and it was those quartet performances that inspired me to begin writing about jazz in the first place. While the performances were exciting and inspired, one could also see that the guitarist was after something new. As he remarked in a March 2012 Wall Street Journal article,
I went through a phase where I was frustrated... Then I decided I was going to make a push and get to a place where I really enjoyed playing the instrument, and it's worked. I've re-evaluated everything, from my attitude to my physical technique.
Star of Jupiter is the product of this re-evaluation, and proves that Mr. Rosenwinkel has refined and rediscovered his core musical principles in a new way, and remains at the forefront of innovation of the jazz, just as he has been over a decade and a half. The material on this album presents a bold and stunning new vision of his identifiable compositional language within the context of his "New Quartet" (Aaron Parks, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Justin Faulkner, drums).
There is a vast world of sonic meaning and knowledge in Star of Jupiter, and this is what makes the album so compelling. From the inner-most depth of the self to the outer-most regions of the cosmos, there is a spatial transcendance and ominpresence in theme. A look at the titles makes evident that the music encompasses, literally, the spectrum of subject matter "from the depth of the sould to the height of the universe," as Rosenwinkel says in the quote above. "Under It All," "Gamma Band," "Welcome Home," and "Deja Vu" embody the earthbound, introspective, emotive theme. They examine experience, the inner-most depth of the self. "Hommage A Mitch" and "Mr. Hope" are two great tributes to the jazz lineage. And finally, "Star Of Jupiter," "A Shifting Design" and "Heavenly Bodies" are celestial in inspiration. (Although I was speculating that "Heavenly Bodies" could be a double entendre.) Then there are songs like "Kurt 1" which are vehicles for grooving and having a good time, yet are equally compelling as the others.
This review will focus on the album and the band as a whole, specifically the fascinating facets of their approach to building grooves. My individual analyses of each composition on Star of Jupiter can be found here, in a review of several sets of the "New Quartet" I saw during the tour that coincided with the recording of this album.
The most apparent characteristic of Rosenwinkel's new vision is the important role of open groove space. Open vamps, spacious mantra-like layerings, and soulful R&B type grooves make up much of the record. In open groove spaces, much of the harmonic duties are cleared away and allow the bandmembers a chance to improvise and become part of that space. As the guitarist states in the press release, "I've never had a band that really wanted to do that and I really love the fact that that's something we do... immerse into and experience the warmth of the groove." In these moments the band's unique cameraderie, and their most intense improvisational expression, comes to the fore. Rosenwinkel and Parks speak a beautiful musical dialogue, for example, at the fading end of "Heavenly Bodies." In other instances, like the enrapturing finale of "Homage A Mitch," Rosenwinkel takes over himself, and ceaselessly shoots a building array of fretboard-stretching lines.
But there is a groove concept that stretches far beyond the presence of drawn out vamps and subtly developing grooves. There is never a point, for example, where the groove breaks down entirely -- where the intensity peaks in a kind of collective mayhem, as is often heard in contemporary jazz, including some of Rosenwinkel's earlier work -- and there is always a thread of groove present at each moment, whether it be Faulkner's meticulously constructed and precisely maintained beats, or a guitar-piano ostinato and bassline during Faulkner's solos.
The groove is not only continuous time-wise, but also band-wise; the groove components of a song are often not confined individually to the drums but collectively in each member of the band. "Kurt 1," "Heavenly Bodies," "Star of Jupiter," and "Gamma Band" incorporate layers of ostinatos and create a rich rhythmic atmosphere. The sound on this new album is broad and expansive, thanks in part to the construction of complicated grooves. These grooves also create a stimulating dynamic between the soloist and the rhythm section. Textures and cruves of the band's groove combine with the rhythmic contour of the soloist at hand. This combination creates an effect where the rhythmic line of a soloist's phrasing is intimately interconnected with the groove as a whole; and through this the band achieves a sum greater than its parts. It's fascinating to hear the fluctuations of Rosenwinkel's elongated phrasing ebb and flow against the myriad rhythmic textures created by the rest of the band in the oscillations of 5/4 in "Gamma Band." In this track, as well as "Star of Jupiter," it's the contrast between steady groove and fluid rhythmic tapestries makes the music rhythmically thrilling at every second, it creates a novel dimension of speed and momentum that is unique to Star of Jupiter. Additionally, the fact that a continuous groove is maintained makes for a sound that builds to intensity without obstructing the beat throughout the music.
One needs to acknowledge the tremendous contributions of Revis and Faulkner in this regard. As far as anchors go, few bassists hold gravity in a fluid rhythmic environment better than Revis, and he does so while simultaneously being musical, swinging and funky with his lines. Wherever the music goes, his thick tone and melodic undertones keep the foundation. As I head Johnny O'Neill once remark, Revis is the "heartbeat" of the band.
Mr. Faulkner's sound and approach to percussion is also a departure from drummers who have been a part of Rosenwinkel's earlier bands. These drummers -- such as Jeff Ballard, Paul Motian, or Jorge Rossy -- favored a more talkative, interactive, gestural, free and spacious swing. They would sometimes sacrifice time-keeping for a more involved conversational style, and perferred to develop intesnsity through the frequency of drum and cymbal activity. Faulkner, on the other hand, favors tight and consistent beats, and sees maintaining -- and buildilng -- the song as the essential role of the drummer. As Faulkner said in a New York Times article: "My approach isn't cymbals-and-drums. It's just music. Servicing the song." That doesn't mean, however, that he is less interactive, inventive, or involved in the development of the music; rather, the interaction happens in a different way. He follows Vernell Fournier's groove ethic, one of steady devotion to a simple repeating groove with deliberate changeups added over a long period of time. The fills are nuanced, minimal, but effective. He keeps a simple, pure groove as the core, but develops groove variations that allow him to be present and interactive with the band. Keeping a constant center of time, he simultaneously orchestrates new variations of groove ("adding some little piece to make the music build") to interact and blend with the rest of the group and constantly develop the song. Thus he takes the music to awesome heights, in many new directions, all while keeping present the cadences and hits, the marks and turns of the song. It's almost as if he acts not on top of, or in addition to, but through groove itself.
The immersive quality of the band's sound is also achieved by the way it is mixed. Listen with a good pair of headphones, and it becomes apparent that the sound is arranged spherically. The feeling is like being immersed in a world of sound, as if you're standing in the source of the music, looking at the music from the inside outward, hearing it happen all around you. Rosenwinkel is centered above, with the his guitar and voice equally present in both left and right speakers. He hovers above at the zenith, and his sound -- through reverb and an interesting effect which sounds like delay with a subtle ripple -- his sound emanates outward in all directions. The rest of the band, which is mixed with a very immediate sound, without much reverb, fills in the sides of the speakers. Parks and Faulkner are panned out in a circle, so that when they travel their insturments the source of sound travels as well. This adds a kind of roundness to the overall feel.