KURT ROSENWINKEL CAME TO PROMINENCE IN THE early ’90s, playing with jazz legends vibraphonist Gary Burton
and drummer Paul Motian, as well as hip contemporaries such
as saxophonists Chris Potter, Saemus Blake, Mark Turner, and
Joshua Redman. In addition to distinguishing himself as an
extraordinary guitarist with the requisite sideman and collaborative
credits, Rosenwinkel has also proven to be a prolific
and adventurous composer, exploring music ranging from reimagined
standards (Reflections) to big band extravaganzas (Our
Secret World) to cross-genre hybrids (Heartcore). He received the
National Endowment for the Arts Composer’s Award in 1995.
Rosenwinkel’s tenth release as a leader, Star of Jupiter [Wommusic],
is a double-disc tour de force that showcases the guitarist’s
highly melodic and nuanced fretwork within an intriguing
array of compositional contexts, accompanied by keyboardist
Aaron Parks, acoustic bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Justin
Faulkner. Upcoming projects include an “experimental, mad-scientist”
album akin to Heartcore, and a solo guitar and looping
album that will provide egress into yet another dimension
encompassed within Rosenwinkel’s expanding musical universe.
What you were hoping to achieve with Star of Jupiter, and did
it turn out the way you anticipated it would?
The album was made very loosely compared to others I’ve
recorded. In the past I have been very artistically driven and
focused on exactly what I wanted to do and why, but in this
case my manager just suggested I make a quartet album, and
because I already had an amazing band and a lot of material, that
sounded like a great idea. I was also already intensely focused on making two other records, which I’m sure had something to
do with it. Once the music began taking shape, things took
on a kind of mystical aspect for a number of reasons, and it
started to feel like a pretty powerful convergence. Our experience
in the studio was really strong—kind of like we had
help from the spirits. So, although I approached the project
relatively casually, I’m thrilled with how it came out, and I
think it may be my best record yet.
Does the title allude to that experience in some way?
Yes. The title refers to a very powerful, mystical dream
that I had in the run up to the album, and the phrase “Star
of Jupiter” was taken directly from that dream. It was this
sort of celestial measuring instrument that was given to
me—but it was also a metaphor for spiritual transformation.
After that all of these weird convergences began happening
to me relative to that. For example, when we drove
to the Clubhouse in upstate New York to do the session, we
arrived at about 10:30 at night. The studio is in a big field,
and as soon as we got out of the car I looked up in the sky
and there was Jupiter—and then suddenly a meteor with a
green flame in front of it like I’ve never seen before moved
slowly across the sky, looking almost as if it might strike the
planet and explode.
In the press release for the album you talk
about using intuition to listen to what the
universe is telling you. Elaborate on that in
terms of how it relates to your music, your
guitar playing, and your view of creativity.
In my experience, the most powerful
moments in music have come when I’m just
listening rather than trying to do something.
That could be listening to the other musicians,
or what’s in my internal space, or what
I imagine to be my connection to “the universe,”
which is just kind of a metaphorical
name for the interconnected whole of reality.
When I write a song, I don’t feel like I’m
writing it, I feel like I’m finding it. And when
I’m improvising I feel like I can take care
of the nuts and bolts of the craft—but the
essential ingredient is brought to the music
by a certain kind of meditation, which is listening
to the universe. There’s also human
emotion and my personal expression through
my life and things like that, of course, but
the greater power in my experience comes
from this intuitive relationship with the
spiritual or universal realms, in which I can
experience a feeling of almost total obliteration
or dissolution. That’s a very different
kind of experience and motivation for playing
music than the idea of self-expression.
I really don’t care about self-expression in
music [laughs]. I want to dissolve and disappear
into the wave of the universe.
Despite the heady compositional structures,
there’s a lushness and sensuality to
a lot of the pieces that tends to seduce the
listener into experiencing them as music
rather than technical marvels. Was that an
explicit goal while you were writing, or do
those two things simply coexist naturally?
That’s a great observation, and I appreciate
it because I feel the same way. I consider
my music to be very accessible, even though
it may be complex in its inner workings, and
I get a kick out of that coexistence. Actually,
I try to write pieces that are as simple as they
can be, and that are connected to some tangible
feeling or mood—but it just so happens
that the things I find are naturally structured
the way they are. A good example is “Welcome
Home,” which was a piano piece that had
been kicking around in my repertoire. When
I decided to include it on the album I had to
write a chart for the band, and although I had
always thought of the piece as being simple,
because it sounds simple, writing it out made
me realize that it is incredibly complicated. I’m always hurt whenever someone calls my
music “intellectual,” because it isn’t that way
at all. It’s just the way that it needs to be. It
couldn’t be any simpler.
Blending your voice with your guitar lines
is one of your trademarks, but on the new
album you take it to some new places using
signal processing. Talk about that, maybe
using the opening track as an example.
The voice has always been an element in
my sound, and I’ve gradually become more
sophisticated in terms of effects processing
and controlling the nuances of how I blend
it with the guitar sound. On “Gamma Band,”
there are actually sometimes three sounds,
because I’m using an Electro-Harmonix
HOG pedal with the guitar to get an organ-like
sound, and I blend that in, too. Being
able to control the voice more allows me to
make it louder in the mix, whereas before I
had to keep it really low so it wouldn’t jump
out too much. My voice is processed with a
DigiTech Vocalist pedal and some delay and
reverb on that track.
How do you control the blend of the dry and
processed sounds coming from the guitar?
I only use the neck pickup on my D’Angelico
NYSS-3, and the lead from that is split into
two signal paths, each with its own volume
and tone control and its own output jack.
One output goes to the HOG, the other
goes to my main signal path, and then the
two are blended before they reach the amp.
The pickup selector has been rewired to
select either or both feeds from the pickup.
On “Gamma Band” I had the selector in the
middle, but I can also do things like flip to
the HOG and play a chord swell, freeze that
using the HOG’s freeze function, then flip
to the guitar sound and play a distorted solo
line over it—that sort of thing.
Speaking of distortion, how do you get
that smooth distorted-yet-articulate solo
sound that pops up throughout the album?
I use a Pro Co Rat connected to a GigRig
WetBox parallel effects blender so that I can
mix the clean guitar sound with the sustained
distorted sound to give it a little more body
and clarity. I always like distortion sounds
that don’t sound like rock guitar. Also, when
recording the album I split my signal before
it went to the amp, and routed the reverb
and delay signals to two separate tracks,
with only the dry signal going into the amp.
What amp did you use, and how did you
I used a Port City Pearl, which is a really
clean, warm, and beautiful-sounding tube
amp. I set it for a clean tone and got my other
sounds with pedals. We miked it with Neumann
M49 tube condenser and AEA A440
ribbon microphones, both placed close to the
speaker, which gave us two different colors
to work with.
Although you cover a tremendous range
of expression with your right hand, you
mostly play with a pick using alternate
Yes, combined with lots of hammer-ons
and pull-offs. I very rarely sweep pick, even
when crossing strings, and I never play, say,
two down strokes in a row. I do fingerpick occasionally,
but although I am right handed, my
left hand feels much more agile on the guitar
in terms of fluidity or dexterity, so sometimes
I’m kind of horrified about my right-hand fingerpicking
technique [laughs]. But particularly
with this quartet, which has a piano, the
pianist is usually handling arpeggios and I’m
playing the melodies, which is the way I like
it. I can handle some arpeggios if I need to,
but I’m kind of a hobbyist classical guitarist.
Nonetheless, you play with a lot of dynamics,
even within the course of a single phrase.
Definitely. I want to be able to play anything
in any way needed in order to get the
phrase out, so I practice lots of variations
on alternate picking, and specific exercises
to develop articulation. In that sense, I feel
pretty good about my right hand.
What’s an example of a specific exercise?
One example would be articulating a phrase
with a rhythm in your right hand that’s different
from the rhythm of the phrase that
you are playing with your left hand. So, say
you are playing a series of triads, and the
natural rhythm of the left hand is triplets
with the accent on the one: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. If you were to accent all of the down
strokes with your right hand you would get:
1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. By having two different
rhythms overlapping one another you can
get into some really deep, cool, and complex
phrasing. That’s a big one for me right now.
What’s another big one?
Hearing ahead. You know the concept of
thinking ahead? I’ve been dealing with that for
a long time—but now I’m trying to develop
my ability to actually hear the music, and
to formulate how it is going to sound in my
head, before it happens. When I hear myself
say that, it doesn’t sound so new [laughs]. It’s
like, “yeah, duh.” But I don’t mean it in the
sense of saying to yourself, “I know the next
chord is D,” and then hearing that chord. I
mean listening in an open state of mind and
trying to hear what comes in a natural way. It
has to do with listening to the future.
You are projecting your imagination into
the future while you’re playing?
You could say that. I think of it as time
travel. I want to put my consciousness into the
future so that I find out what happens in the
B section—not just with me, but also with the
drums and the bass and the piano. So, I’ll time
travel to the B section, I’ll see what’s there, and
I’ll hear what it’s going to sound like. And then
when that B section actually comes, the “me”
in the past sense—because at that point it will
be the past—will know exactly how to play in
that moment. I’ll have a lot more wisdom. I’ll
be acting rather than reacting.
When you’re time traveling, what’s going
on with the guy who’s still sitting there in
the present playing?
He’s dealing with what I’ve already dealt
with. He’s just back there in the past executing
I love that image.
[Laughs]. That’s what I’m working on.
Okay, here’s a hypothetical: You’re at a
club and you’re asked to sit in. As soon as
you strap on your guitar, the song starts, the
changes are complex and totally unfamiliar,
and the time is something crazy that you
can’t immediately grasp. The leader points
to you. What do you do?
What’s happening inside your head as
you are playing?
Actually at this point there aren’t too
many situations in which I can’t figure out
what is going on. But if I truly can’t figure it
out, I love that, because then I can just use
my ears. And my ears are pretty quick, so
if the harmony changes I can react to that
instantaneously—just playing by ear. It’s all
playing by ear, it has been from the beginning,
and it always will be. The situation you
described is a very comfortable one for me.
Are you analyzing what’s going on in that
situation or just acting spontaneously?
Both. I’d be figuring out what was going
on while winging it at the same time.
The time travel thing might come in
handy in that situation.
[Laughs]. Damn, you’re right!