The jazz guitarist flexes his muscles with Angels Around, a return to his beloved trio format that draws on inspirations from Monk to Bowie, while exploring digital tone shaping and prepping his debut rock album.
“If I had pictures of my heroes on the wall, you’d see Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Biggie Smalls, David Bowie, maybe a Zeppelin album, and the Beatles,” guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel says.
Even via a transcontinental Zoom call I could see that his Berlin studio wasn’t a gear museum or memorabilia showcase. It’s a workspace that reflects his myriad influences and his never-ending string of varied projects. And Angels Around, his latest album, was recorded in this space with drummer Greg Hutchinson and bassist Dario Deidda, his gigging trio.
“I’ve always loved trios,” Rosenwinkel mentions. “The trio format is very dear to me and it’s a very intimate setting.” This affection stretches back to his first album as a leader, East Coast Love Affair, which was released in 1996 and recorded live at New York City’s Smalls Jazz Club, which was an incubator for a dynamic and youthful scene that also included pianist Brad Mehldau, saxophonist Mark Turner, and fellow 6-stringer Peter Bernstein. At the time, Smalls was the place to catch the next wave of fiery young improvisers, and East Coast captures Rosenwinkel using a clear, reverb-laden tone that matches perfectly when his gentle falsetto peeks through.
In a way, the album mirrors Angels, yet offers a controlled view of how Rosenwinkel’s playing and composing has matured over the last quarter-century. The crispness of his melodic ideas is there, but the musicality behind them has become more meaningful, which can be attributed to his constant stream of recordings. His tone has lost a bit of attack, by design, but still feels as forceful and direct as it did that night at Smalls.
The idea of doing a live-in-the-studio trio album was interesting not only for musical reasons, but logistical ones, too. “It was easy to do, because you just get in the room and play for a couple of days,” says Rosenwinkel. “Plus, I have ongoing projects that are much more involved.”
Over his shoulder, on the Zoom screen, sits an upright piano, which is demanding his attention for a forthcoming piano-based album. On his music stand sits a chart for “All Is Well,” a recently released track that shows off his more rock-pop side in an obvious nod to his melting pot of influences.
The sound of Rosenwinkel’s guitar, at its core, is full, dark, and pillow-like. His lines flow like water and the trio setting offers space that allows him to explore every inch of the compositions. Both Hutchinson and Deidda push and pull the tunes in new and interesting ways. Check out the syncopated funk-like groove on Monk’s “Ugly Beauty,” for example. Not to mention the bluesy, soulful original, “Simple #2.” And read on for a breakdown of Angels Around, and to learn about his passion for digital guitar technology and his return to fronting a rock group.
At what point did you feel drawn to play as a trio for this album?
After I released Caipi [in 2017], I wanted to get back to more of the common ground of what I do. Plus, the trio really came together in the past few years. I was very happy with the chemistry of the group and everything was clicking. And I love playing with those cats. We had been playing a lot, so it made sense to record. I’m really happy with how it came out.
Have you become more productive recently or is balancing several projects at once typical for you?
Apart from the worry and the financial and health concerns, it’s actually quite nice to have a time-out from the craziness of my life as it normally is and just have unbroken time at home. If you had asked me what my biggest wish was, it would be to just have three months of unbroken time at home. So, this is almost like a dream come true—in the sense that there’s so much that I don’t get to because I’m away. Plus, I’m lucky that I have a studio.
It’s always interesting to hear the stories behind what tunes you choose to record. Did cutting [saxophonist] Joe Henderson’s “Punjab” bring back any memories of playing with him?
I love Joe Henderson’s music and having had the opportunity to play with him was just one of the biggest opportunities that I’ve ever had. I really cherish those memories. I loved those tunes before I got to play with him, and it was incredible to come into the first rehearsal and have him call “Punjab” and “Serenity,” and “Caribbean Fire Dance.” It’s an interesting song with its own arrangement and a lot of nooks and crannies in the composition that make for really interesting interplay with the trio.
What liberties do you feel like you’re able to take with a tune like that when you bring it to the trio?
The more I have a handle on what it is harmonically and structurally, the more I can play it true to itself and the more I feel like I’m not limited. My process is to try to get as deeply into what it is and live there so completely that I just feel so happy to be there finding my own melodies and being able to express my own feelings and instincts within that form.
TIDBIT: All of Angels Around was recorded and mixed in Rosenwinkel’s home studio in Berlin. “It was easy to do, because you just get in the room and play for a couple of days,” says Rosenwinkel.
Do you have a mental checklist that you go down when you’re learning a tune, or is it as simple as playing it repeatedly?
Mostly sitting around and playing it over and over again. Playing it so much that you kind of forget that you’re playing it and you just find all of these places within it. You start discovering things that are unique to the song. I can take one song and play it for three hours, and then connections are made. Then you begin to discover your own relationship with the song and discover your language within the song. I just love these songs. I love to play them, and the more I play them, the more I find other ways to play them. I really enjoy the music of it.
Paul Chambers didn’t write too many tunes. How did you discover “Ease It?”
I discovered it on his album called Go. [Drummer] Jorge Rossy gave me a cassette tape of it when I moved to Barcelona in 1993. I spent about six months living in Barcelona, and I was originally staying at Jorge’s grandmother’s house. I just loved that album. It’s amazing how much great music was recorded and there’s so much to discover even if you’ve discovered so much already.
I hear a lot of Monk in your playing. Do you think he was more of an influence on you as a composer, or as an improviser?
I would say both, because there’s so much composition in his improvising. There’s so much architecture. I love that aspect of music—just the way things are constructed and the concept of economy and that everything has a purpose and there’s nothing that’s superfluous. Even in my style, which I’m developing, that has a lot of notes and contains a lot of information, my goal is still economy and clarity of an idea. I don’t want to waste any note as well.
Listening to Monk is always an inspiration in that regard. His compositions are just so beautiful and the voice leading of his tunes is so inspiring because it’s so tight, in that everything makes so much sense. But at the same time, it’s so interpretable, and because it’s interlocking you can find many, many different ways that it can interlock with other approaches, like substitutions and other pathways that he provides by making the structure so functional.