For many 30-somethings who grew up in the 90s, myself included, stumbling across Nirvana’s Nevermind at 13 felt like a timely bombshell in the profound chaos of teenage angst. The raw power and melodic appeal of Kurt Cobain’s songs were so intoxicating that you could scream along with him on “Rape me” (from In Utero, of course) and not feel bad about the unnerving significance of this self-mutilating plea. As a French teenager you got to build your English vocabulary with super heavy words. Kurt was such a compelling screamer you just knew that whatever the generally enigmatic lyrics of the songs, the music reflected his deep emotional core. You related to that pain on a basic and immediate level. A couple of generic chords, fabulously simple guitar hooks, like-minded punk rocker colleagues and a gut-wrenching voice that tied it all together, that was the music of Nirvana.Almost 20 years down the line, I’ve made the irreversible leap to jazz for better or worse, but definitely without disowning those grungy roots.
Now, regardless of musical maturity, getting into guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel’s music is not exactly your walk in the park experience. In fact, I first found it jarring and pointlessly virtuosic. I realize now that my initial skepticism had to do with my unfamiliarity with the modern jazz guitar and a deep worry that this guy might play some kind of jazz fusion, which, God forbid, would have filled me with horror (I hear those who will argue he actually plays fusion, call it whatever makes you happy). Like most demanding – and thus essential – music, Kurt’s requires careful listening and a little adjusting to certain aesthetic choices that can be grating on first listen. Oddly, the album that initially almost made me give up on Kurt is the one I often find myself coming back to: Heartcore. When I first played the title track, I nearly choked and shouted for help. What’s with the all the sound effects? I complained (to myself). Synthesizers? Get out of here. Drum machine? Criminal. Reverb-synthed vocals. No way! I want my acoustic jazz back!
Well, the whole bag of effects feels right now. Precisely because they’re not so much processed sounds tagged on for “effect” as essential components of Kurt’s ethereal musical tapestry. His is a ghostly sound for sure, atmospheric, full of twists and turns and cascading runs that often sound plucked from outer space. Imagine Pat Metheny marooned on Saturn. But for all the weightlessness of that cosmic vibe, Kurt remains grounded in the harmonic language of jazz. And he should be given credit for being one of the major rejuvenators of that ever-evolving music. While his own take on the standards is worth repeated listens, he has created a solid songbook that many aspiring jazz musicians today should tap into for inspiration. His melodies exude a lyricism that is yet combative and urgent, features that any lapsed or current rocker can relate to, right? Granted, the maiden voyage to Rosenwinkeland can be daunting at first, and a good place to warm up to his style safely is probably his magnificent work on saxophonist Mark Turner’s records. Conversely, Turner’s meditative tone graces Rosenwinkel’s albums as well. The sonic chemistry these two achieve is pure beauty, Kurt’s gnarly guitar lines wrapping around Turner’s sinuous phrasing seamlessly. You’ll find a couple of record suggestions at the end of the post (I’m just testing your patience).
A little context is in order here. In the mid 90s, as grunge reached its apex and rock began to gravitate toward electronic sounds more aggressively, a new breed of jazz talents converged to New York City and mapped out the “shape of jazz to come”. I’m ready to weather the most ruthless criticisms of the jazz police, but yes, in my opinion the NY City scene that emerged in the 90s ranks alongside the bebop revolution that swept 52nd Street back in the 40s. These musicians, including Kurt Rosenwinkel, pumped crucial new blood into music that suffered (and still does) from fatal misconceptions and stereotypes. Like their groundbreaking predecessors Diz, Bird, Monk & co, they played each other’s songs and there is sense that a lot of cross-pollination happened. Isn’t that the definition of a scene? A vibrant one at that. Unsurprisingly, a little archeological work reveals that some of today’s top players all jammed and/or recorded music with Kurt in the 90s and into the 2000s. The music is heavily documented on the Barcelona-based label Fresh Sounds as well as on the Dutch label Criss Cross. If you are into Brad Mehldau, Jorge Rossy, Larry Grenadier, Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson (of The Bad Plus fame),Peter Bernstein, Mark Turner, Orrin Evans, Bill McHenry, Chris Cheek, Guillermo Klein, you name it, plunging into the 90s catalog of these two labels shines a fascinating light on their early work. It’s nice to trace these beginnings and to hear how great these musicians already played back then. They came up together and brought jazz into the 21st century with personal visions informed by various musical roots.
Undoubtedly, Rosenwinkel’s full-on sophistication could not be further removed from Cobain’s punk raw energy but the path that leads from one to the other might not be as rocky as it looks. Perhaps growing up musically has not so much to do with embracing more complex music as recognizing that our teenager kicks prepared us for it.
Selected Kurt Rosenwinkel recommendations:
The Enemies of Energy (Verve, 2000);The Next Step (Verve, 2001); Heartcore ( Verve, 2003); Deep Song (Verve, 2005); Star of Jupiter (WOMMUSIC, 2012)
On Mark Turner’s albums:
Yam Yam (Criss Cross, 1995), In this World (Warner Bros, 1998); Dharma Days (Warner Bros, 2001)