Sunday 6 December 2009

Kurt Rosenwinkel: "Reflections" reviewed

This is Kurt's first trio recording since his debut East Coast Love Affair on Fresh Sound in 1996 and is interesting because of its focus on Kurt the guitarist, rather than Kurt the composer or bandleader. I"ve listened to this most days since it arrived a couple of weeks ago and will probably continue to listen to it over the coming weeks as it is so rich and there is so much to listen to.

What intrigues me so much about Kurt's playing is that there are so many dimensions to it. Listening to, say, the opener Monk's Reflections, he is articulating the melody, accompanying the melody with chords, improvising with both chords and melodic lines, capturing a certain mood and striving to say something new. This is a pianistic approach and, it there is any obvious difference to his debut over ten years ago is that he has extended his harmonic range and technical facility in order to fully embrace this pianistic approach. It was George Van Eps who pioneered this approach to the guitar and provided an comprehensive set of studies (Harmonic Mechanisms for Guitar) for guitarists wishing to play what he called "lap piano". Kurt sounds as though he has dug deep into these studies in order to master this approach. I've often marveled at how Charlie Hunter can sustain a bass groove with chords and single-note lines. Kurt goes one step further, as he adds in harmonic improvisation. To my ears, this sounds like several chains of musical thought happening in parallel.

For this recording Kurt is joined by my favourite contemporary drummer, Eric Harland, with Eric Revis on bass. That said, the focus is on the guitar with the rhythm section primarily playing a supporting role. If the there is a theme it's that, overall the tunes are ballads - a mix of standards, Wayne Shorter, Monk and just one Kurt original, a re-interpretation of East Coast Love Affair.

Following the statement of the theme, Reflections swings through a set or improvised variations ending with a solo statement of the tune by Kurt in which the subtleties of his harmonic approach are to the fore. You Go To My Head consists of an intro followed by a statement of the theme with Kurt embellishing the spaces between the lines with some nice, pianistic flourishes, bringing to mind Bud Powell, and some rich harmonies remiscent of guitarist Johnny Smith.

Fall is a radical re-working of a Wayne Shorter tune that appears on Miles' Nefertitti album. Beginning with a loose, funky-ish drum pattern, the tune has no head as such. Kurt takes it's circular form and varies it subtly from one chorus to the next, moving the melody and accompanying harmony in a variety of directions. It's a tune I've played over again on several occasions just because I like its mesmerising effect. East Coast Love Affair begins with composed intro that imagine has developed over the ten or so years he has played the tune. The first solo is from Eric Revis, Kurt then plays several choruses that really sing and include some flashes of virtuosic brilliance that we would expect on any of his recordings.

The solo guitar intro to Monk's Ask Me Now is pure George Van Eps. Eric Revis plays a really tasteful solo. The next tune is perhaps my favourite, Wayne Shorter's Ana Maria - an interesting up-tempo bossa nova. I like it because the tune is beautiful and is not one I know. It has that nice mix that we would expect from Jobim's finest bossa novas - melancholia, thoughtfulness and an uplifting quality. The head of More Than You Know is another opportunity for Kurt to show how he can state a theme, provide interesting chordal flourishes and some spectacular double-time ornamentation. During the soloing, he plays some extraordinary lines but, wherever they go, he has a chord ready to provide some support. It's this kind of performance that sets Kurt apart from the crowd.

The final tune if You've Changed, a torch song that I always associate with Billie Holiday. Like You Go To My Head, it's primarily a nice arrangement of the tune, though it does not have the emotional depth of Billie Holiday's version.

Overall, very satisfying album. In contrast to his debut, it has a loose, unhurried feel, with less of a sense of urgency. Though restrained, it is illuminated by flashes of brilliance and it is certainly very expressive. Kurt's last album, The Remedy, highlighted his composing and the contributions of band members like Mark Turner; this album focuses on Kurt, the instrumentalist, but is as rich, diverse and satisfying as any of his albums.


SteveAndPo said...

I've just listened to 'Intuit' by Kurt Rosenwinkel on Spotify.
Very nice indeed!

John Harris said...

I need some one to recommend for Spotify! It won't let me open an account otherwise.

SteveAndPo said...

Sorry John. It appears that I only get invites to hand out if I am a premium user. I'm not I'm afraid.
I suspect they're just trying that out to see how it goes. Hopefully they may relax it a bit soon.
Have you checked out That's pretty good for free streamed music.