Kurt Rosenwinkel on 'Star of Jupiter' and Beyond

Kurt Rosenwinkel came to pro minence 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.
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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.

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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 record it?

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 strokes, right?

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 it.

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!