Kurt Rosenwinkel "From A Guitarists Perspective"
Two days spent with my former Berklee fellow Kurt Rosenwinkel and a workshop at the Musikhochschule Leipzig, Germany in May 2000 gave ample opportunity to ten years later cherish memories of Boston, to talk for hours about music, guitar playing and more. Insights are to be shared. Here are some of the highlights that may be of particular interest to guitar players:
Since the beginning of his professional career in Gary Burton's Band in 1990 Kurt has favored semi-acoustic guitars. Already during his studies at Berklee College Of Music in Boston he was sighted with a black Yamaha SA 2100, that he also used on his Trio-CD "East Coast Love Affair". His second CD under his own name "Intuit" was recorded with a brown Gibson 325, while he used a Gibson TD 125 and a Gretsch Tennessee Model (with modified pickups) on Chris Cheek's "I wish I Knew". On recent recordings such as "Perception" with the Brian Blade Fellowship or Mark Turners "Ballads" Kurt can be heard with a Gibson 335 Studio model, lovingly christened "Albinoguitar" by Brian Blade. For his latest work as a leader "Enemies Of Energy", he employed a red Gibson 355 and a purely acoustic nylonstring of unknown brand, bought for him by bass player Ben Street in Turkey. Currently Kurt plays a stock black Epiphone Emperor (Year 2000), equipped with a standard 0.13 set of roundwound D'Addario Strings, that he plucks with a very hard Dunlop Jazztone 207 pick. Among his many guitars there is only one, that he has stayed faithful to through all the years. On sunny days during his stint in Boston he could be sighted sitting in front of Berklee's Mass. Ave building with "Stella". This garbage pick four-string tenor guitar accompanies Kurt on "Polish Song" ("The Enemies Of Energy"). According to Kurt its alternate tuning is not permanently fixed and changes according to weather conditions.
Effects and amps
Although rooted in the jazzguitar tradition Kurt distinguishes himself from other guitarists of his generation by an openness to technology and new sounds. His preference for semi-acoustic guitars, with an emphasis in the midrange, stems from a highly developed sense for sonic balance within his trios. According to Kurt a darker sounding guitar runs the risk of conflicting with the bass, even when played in a higher register. From his guitar Kurt runs his signal through a RAT distortion pedal (such as the one used by Scofield), going into a Line 6 Delay, followed by a Lexicon MPX100 effect processor (of its many programs Kurt almost exclusively uses a "hall" or "large plate" reverb) and finally amplified by a Polytone bassamp (with a 15' speaker) from the 80's. To Kurt's ears older Polytone amps sound much better than newer models. In line with general arms reduction his set-up from cold war Berklee days with poweramp and Boogie speakers has given way to simple one amp weaponry. For recording Kurt likes to have his amp miked with a single microphone. On some recordings an additional mike captures his falsetto voice (that he employs to accompany his lines as well as the top notes of his voicings in unison), considered by Kurt an integral part of his sound.
Watching Kurt play up close quickly shows that he has thoroughly dealt with all aspects of the instrument. It might be noteworthy that he seems to be playing lines mostly with the first three fingers of his left hand, with the middle finger serving as an anchor from which he frequently stretches towards the saddle. Horizontally and vertically the guitar seems to bear no more technical secrets for him. For fast arpeggios he likes to use hammer on's with his ringfinger. A very sovereign picking hand complements his brilliant left hand technique. Guitarteachers and authors of guitar methods like to argue over what the "best" right hand picking technique is. After many years of practicing Kurt has come to the conclusion that playing from the elbow (for speed), from the wrist (for positioning the picking hand over the strings) as well as from the fingers (for articulation) all have their individual advantages. Asked by my (astute and unforgiving) students about his pinky that he likes to rest on the picking guard, Kurt replies that this is something that does indeed tend to tighten up his right hand on faster tempos and that he is working on changing that. Luckily my students seemed content with this answer...
Kurt frequently plays chords with a combination of fingers and his pick held between thumb and indexfinger. Many full voicings are accomplished with his left-hand thumb reaching around the neck. (Thank God my students didn't notice... :-). Kurt never practices technique as an isolated issue. Rather he likes to combine technical studies with a musical challenge. He constantly invents his own exercises that he continuously develops. Some systematic practicing in a traditional sense stood at the beginning of Kurt's career such as for example playing modes in position in all keys. Kurt remembers practicing scales, various patterns (i.e. 1-2-3-5), alternating fourpart arpeggios (i.e. in C-major C-E-G-H ascending, C - A - F - D descending, E - G - H - D ascending, E - C - A - F descending etc.) in Major, melodic and harmonic Minor. Apparently this form of practice still offers a good starting point to familiarize oneself with the architecture of the fingerboard.
With a smile Kurt quotes the most frequently asked question by students and at workshops as being: "What substitutions do you use". Very often, the person asking this question would also turn out to know impressive three standards...
Even though Kurt acknowledges harmonic analysis and substitution as very interesting topics Kurt continues to recommend to such students to rather first memorize as many standards as possible. Every jazz standard offers something different and interesting harmonically and melodically. Also every memorized standard offers added opportunities to employ substitutions. Which leaves only one question: What substitutions does Kurt favor ? To me Kurt among many other notable musical distinctions is a big fan of triads. Over a given chord Kurt seems to frequently employ triads from the first, fourth and fifth degree of the relative major or minor key. The first couple of measures of his solo over "How Deep Is the Ocean" (on "Intuit") exemplify this pretty well. Piano and saxophone players commonly use this concept. Kurt considers it common knowledge of any modern soloist and accordingly employs it with great command. This approach is dealt with in more detail than space here allows for example in the book "Intervallic Improvisation - The Modern Sound: A Step Beyond Linear Improvisation" by Walt Weiskopf (Jamey Aebersold). As many other modern players before him (Coltrane being one of the first and most notable) Kurt has also looked into the "Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns" by Nicolas Slonimsky. This mathematically constructed collection of intervallic octave divisions can be found in many ambitious musicians bookshelf. How to use them in an organized way or let's say a standard remains a mystery to many. Kurt admittedly is also still trying to solve that puzzle. However he likes the Slonimsky patterns as a "different way to look at the guitar" and would quickly quote a few. John Coltrane should also be cited as a strong influence on Kurt. He recalls transcribing Coltrane's solos on "Satellite", "Oleo" and "Airegin". Three tonic compositions such as the classic "Giant Steps" have been part of Kurt's repertoire since Berklee days. He also fondly remembers transcribing Bill Evans (Piano) Solo on "I Love You" as a rewarding experience. He says that in the last couple of years he hasn't transcribed much but still considers it a worthwhile occupation. Among his idols are also piano legends such as Bud Powell and Keith Jarrett, which as Kurt puts offer certain aspects in their playing that he tries to emulate. Interestingly he never practices singlenote lines and chords as different items but rather mixes them and treats them as an entity, which also makes for his individual sound and a pianistic approach.
What a surprise it was to me when Kurt with a big grin on his face reached in his guitar bag and took out an old (at least 15 years) chord melody arrangement. Oddly enough I knew this one and that it had come straight from a rusty metal drawer in the Berklee Guitar Department (no offense - I loved Berklee). That an experienced player such as Kurt still keeps an open unprejudiced mind in my opinion very much speaks for him. If there is a unified field theory (a topic that Kurt also likes to discuss) on playing jazzguitar maybe the formula is that musical modesty equals success. Beside an intense study of harmony in general (mostly learning by doing and working with standards) Kurt has also been working with the late George Van Eps' "Harmonic Mechanisms For Guitar". (This New York telephone directory style bible mostly addresses triads and all their permutations on various stringsets.) In connection with this method Kurt mentions the study of triads from harmonic minor as well as various possibilities for the movement of inner voices as particularly interesting to him. In his playing you will indeed encounter a lot of triads, doublestops etc. which he seamlessly weaves into his improvisations. Another one of his personal exercises consists of playing a different voicing on every quarter or half note over a standard progression.
Kurt is also a devoted piano player. His mother (a classically trained pianist) and father (who is an Architect and plays piano as a hobby) instilled in him a love for improvisation early on. His love for the piano is evident. Various humorous stories have been witnessed such as wild hotel lobby fights over who gets the piano while touring with drummer Jorge Rossy...
If you do let him touch the keys it'll be some time before you can get him off again. In the meantime you might be treated to pieces by Thelonious Monk or a version of "Eyes So Beautiful As Yours" by Elmo Hope, whose chromaticism and controlled dissonance he admires. Kurt says (and when you listen closely you can hear it) that many of his ideas wander from piano to guitar and vice versa.
Kurt reports that at a certain point his knowledge about voicings led him into a crisis. To have a certain collection of voicings for every harmony, and a sound you already internally hear before you actually play it, would eventually make it redundant to still play it. Out of a discontent over letting the fingers dictate which voicing would be played he chose voluntary selfsabotage and started to randomly retune his guitar. Anyone who has ever tried this will know that one twist of a tuning peg can turn you into a beginner in an instant. Just like the first time you touched a guitar all you have is yours ears to rely on - and that's exactly what Kurt's intention was. Many years and attempts later some tunings have emerged that Kurt likes to use again and again. His favorite tuning from low to high e-String would be: Eb (down a halfstep), Bb (halfstep lower), Ab (a whole step higher), Db (halfstep lower), G (a whole step lower) and Bb (down a tritone). An interesting observation with this tuning may be the possibility to realize whole and halfsteps between the "G" and "B"-string fairly easily and a much fuller sound. Upon closer examination "only" three out of six strings really change. E, B and D-string are keeping their relative relation but are gaining warmth through their "flat-key" tuning. His next album on Verve will feature this tuning and several compositions that he composed with it.
Even before the release of his CD "The Enemies Of Energy" of whose ten originals he wrote nine, Kurt had gained respect among musicians for his skills as a composer. For Kurt composing usually starts with some kind of discovery. He likens the process to opening a door. Some of his songs stem from improvisational exercises. "Cubism" for example started as an attempt to switch keys within an improvised line. The result is a twelve-measure form going through twelve keys. (kind of like going four times through a Coltrane three tonic Giant Steps cycle). "Polish Song" than again is an inspired solo guitar piece that was born from a spontaneous improvisation in his Brooklyn apartment. The frequently encountered reservations that many students (and some professional musicians alike) seem to have about their own original compositions are not a problem for Kurt. He simply says that: "The best thing about composing is that you don't have to stop until you like."
To Kurt practicing creatively is the key to everything. He takes the conventional and often quoted wisdom that you play what you practice very seriously: " If you are stressed out when you practice, you will be stressed out when you play. Playing the guitar means practicing your mental state of mind." Consequently Kurt practices by playing: "I improvise a lot. I mean really a lot. When I hit on something that I'm not really familiar with, I stop and work on it. Most of the time I improvise over a standard or something like that until I find a spot that I work on for some time and then I continue to improvise. Kind of like a discjockey I go back and forth over a progression or whatever it is that I'm working on, until I feel comfortable with it. It's kind of like kneading dough. Over time some topics have repeatedly come up that I work on regularly. I constantly invent exercises to work on certain things, such as problems arising out of improvising. I think that you are your own best teacher. When I ask myself what are my weaknesses? I know exactly what they are! " Talent alone didn't create a Kurt Rosenwinkel. Spending four to eight hours on the guitar was not a rare thing until not long ago. These days Kurt spends about two months in a year just practicing: "They don't call it hard work for nothing - but it's worth it. Music has always been an obsession for me - in a good sense. To me it doesn't seem that I've been working hard because I've always discovered something."
Beatles - "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
David Bowie - "Ziggy Stardust"
Cameron De La Isla & Tomatito - Sampler
Ornette Coleman - "Live At Town Hall"
John Coltrane - "Coltrane`s Sound"
Keith Jarrett - "Still Life"
Bud Powell - Verve Box Set
Sergej Prokofiev - Piano concerto Nr.3
Maurice Ravel - "Music For Piano" - (played by Monique Haas)
Led Zeppelin - "Houses Of The Holy"
Paul Desmond & Jim Hall - Box Set
Kevin Eubanks - "Opening Night"
Tal Farlow - Verve Sampler
Grant Green - "The Latin Bit"
Pat Metheny - "Rejoicing"
Pat Metheny - "Offramp"
Pat Metheny - "Travels"
Pat Metheny - "Full Circle"
John Scofield - "Blue Matter"
George Van Eps - "Soliloquy"
Kurt Rosenwinkel - Under It All (2001)
Kurt Rosenwinkel - Enemies Of Energy (2000)
Kurt Rosenwinkel - Intuit (1999)
Kurt Rosenwinkel - East Coast Love Affair (1996)
Chris Cheek - I Wish I Knew (1996)
Chris Potter - Vertigo (1998)
Gary Burton & Friends - Six Pack (1992)
George Colligan - Unresolved (1999)
Human Feel - Speak To It (1996)
Human Feel - Welcome to Malpesta (1994)
Human Feel - Scatter (1991)
Jochen Rückert - Introduction (1997)
Larry Goldings - Big Stuff (1996)
Marcy Playground - Shapeshifter (1999)
Mark Turner - Ballad Sessions (2000)
Mark Turner - In This World (1998)
Mark Turner - Yam Yam (1994)
Once Blue - Once Blue (1995)
Paul Motian - Monk And Powell (1999)
Paul Motian - Flight Of The Bluejay (1997)
Paul Motian - Reincarnation Of A Love Bird (1994)
Paul Motian - Electric Bebop Band (1993)
Perico Sambeat's - Ademuz (1997)
Seamus Blake - Stranger Things Have Happened (1999)
Seamus Blake - Call (1993)
Tim Hagans - Animation - Imagination (1999)
Blüth - Blüth (1998)
Jazz Sampler - Method To The Madness Part 1 (1998)
Various Artists - Monk to Bach (1998)
Various Artists - Guitar Music (1996)
© 2006 Christian Rover