AS ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL JAZZ guitarists of his generation, Kurt Rosenwinkel’s playing has been dissected, transcribed, and imitated by hordes of aspiring young guitar players at music schools all over the world. They flock to his gigs and check out his stage setup after each set, trying to solve the riddle of how he gets his beautiful sound—just as hordes of would-be guitarists did back in the ’70s when Pat Metheny emerged on the scene. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, both guitarists have reason to feel extremely flattered.
A restlessly creative spirit and prolific composer, Rosenwinkel is constantly thinking about his tone and continually making adjustments to his gear to arrive at the elusive sound he’s hearing. “For me, it’s an expressive journey,” says the 39-year-old guitarist, who apprenticed with vibraphonist Gary Burton in the early ’90s before joining Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band (1994-1998). “It’s like an expressive imperative to get the sound that I have in my head out there. Every guitar that I play has different qualities. I sometimes wish I could have the attack from one guitar with the sustain from another and the neck of yet another—but you just can’t do that. You can’t build the perfect instrument. Meanwhile, you work with what you have and do what you can to improve all these areas.”
At the recording session for his recent ballads album, Standards Trio Vol. 1: Reflections (released on his own newly formed Word of Mouth label), Rosenwinkel seemed content with two new custom-made archtop guitars he had recently picked up in Palermo from a Sicilian luthier named Domenico Moffa. The warm, woody tone of those guitars—one a hollowbody and the other a semi-hollow Kurt Rosenwinkel Signature model with a spruce top and maple back and sides—served him well on that session, which was recorded in Brooklyn in June with bassist Eric Revis (a longstanding member of the Branford Marsalis Quartet) and drummer Eric Harland (with the Charles Lloyd Quartet and a member of the SF Jazz Collective). “The sound of the Moffa Signature model was so beautiful that I just fell in love with the guitar,” says Rosenwinkel. “Moffa is a former violin maker, and I was really blown away by the craftsmanship of this instrument. And it plays like a dream. So, sonically, that’s another reason why this new record is in this intimate zone, because of this fine instrument.”
By the time his weeklong engagement at the Village Vanguard rolled around in September, however, Rosenwinkel had switched back to his D’Angelico NYSS-3 New York—the same ax he had played on 2003’s Heartcore and 2005’s Deep Song, as well as 2008’s intensely visceral Remedy: Live at the Village Vanguard, a sprawling double-CD featuring the guitarist stretching out with his working quintet at the time: tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Eric Harland. Rosenwinkel explains his switch back to the D’Angelico this way: “I was in Portugal to play a gig with the Orchestra de Jazz de Matosinhos, doing big band arrangements of some of my tunes, and I took the D’Angelico there because I like the way it responds to the distorted sound when I’m playing the legato lead stuff. Also, it’s just such a familiar ax for me that I realized I could express myself better on that guitar because I know where I can push it, where I have to be delicate, what it can do, and what it sounds like when playing on each part of the fretboard. So there was a comfort zone that I got back to with that instrument. A Moffa guitar is like a Bosendorfer piano, where you have to really learn a new technique to play it, and I had a great experience playing the Moffas—but I brought the D’Angelico to the Vanguard because I wanted to have that trusted friend there.”
During his engagement at the Village Vanguard, Rosenwinkel played his D’Angelico (with a recently added Seymour Duncan ’59 pickup) through his Harry Colby-modified Fender Twin Reverb amplifier. His distortion, which he used very sparingly on this gig, came from a 1984-vintage Pro Co Rat pedal. And his subtle touches of delay came from an Eventide TimeFactor. “I used to use a Line 6 delay, but with this Eventide pedal you can change the amount of delay with an expression pedal, which is very useful for me creatively when I’m trying to bridge the gap between playing the guitar and hearing pianistic harmony,” he explains. “You can also push the pedal down after you play a chord and the chord will be held with the delays intact. Then you can play another chord on top of the first one and get that kind of tertiary harmony and build more complex voicings. I’m always searching for ways to extend the expressiveness of the instrument from a sonic perspective.”
The most recent addition to Rosenwinkel’s small arsenal of effects pedals is a Joemeek FloorQ optical compressor. “I’ve always had problems with the sound of the pick on the string, and I wanted to find a way to deal with the transients that happen when you play a note,” he says. “On a keyboard you can control the expressiveness of each note by altering the attack, decay, sustain, and release characteristics, and I would love to have that kind of control on a guitar, because I like a softer, mallet-y kind of attack. Compression can help tame transients, but it isn’t ideal because it limits your dynamic range at the same time, and your dynamic range is also your expressive range. For example, sometimes I play huge chords and hit them really hard, and I want them to be loud. A compressor is going to limit that, which is a problem. The FloorQ is better in that regard than most compressor pedals, because it is an optical compressor, which is relatively transparent.” Rosenwinkel also uses TC Electronic Stereo Chorus and Nova ND-1 Delay pedals.
While Rosenwinkel’s sonically adventurous Heartcore was a compelling amalgam of electronica and jazz produced by hiphop icon Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, Standards harkens back to his debut as a leader—1995’s live East Coast Love Affair, which had him tackling jazz standards with bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Jorge Rossy. “That was a nice recording, but I feel like I have more to say as an artist in that context now, and I just wanted to explore that open, beautiful space again. I’m kind of known for this way of playing where you support yourself harmonically, and East Coast Love Affair was a good example of the beginnings of that for me. Now it’s gotten to a point where melody and chords are much more integrated, whereas before they were very clearly separate things— there’s the melody up top and then I’d go down and play some chords. I’m 14 years better now, and more able to play the song and deal with that harmony in a more organic way. Before, I’d be struggling. Now, I’m not.”
Throughout Standards, Rosenwinkel deftly supports his fluid linear statements with rich chord voicings. From a relaxed rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall” to elegant interpretations of Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now” and “Reflections” to gorgeous readings of standards such as “More Than You’ll Know,” “You’ve Changed,” and “You Go to My Head,” the guitarist embraces these timeless melodies with rare nuance and soul. And on a bossa nova-flavored rendition of Shorter’s “Ana Maria,” he flaunts some impressive fingerstyle playing. “That whole tune is fingerstyle, which is very strange for me,” explains Rosenwinkel. “I’m not a great fingerstyle player like a Lenny Breau. I really appreciate his playing and innovative techniques, and his contribution to the guitar was definitely strong, but I’m more of a George Van Eps and Tal Farlow kind of guy. They’re really important to me as a guitarist in everything that I do, particularly Van Eps, who focused on a sort of pianistic harmony, which is what I’m currently focused on. “I’ve learned so much from Van Eps in the way that he’s figured out how to approach finger mechanics in the left hand, so that you can have moving lines inside of chords and cadences within a voice. He pioneered that approach where it sounds like you have two separate musical motions going on at the same time, which is very hard to do on the guitar because you only have your left hand, obviously. Enjoying and listening to his music has been really helpful for me as a guitarist, and studying his books has also helped me a lot. I am always checking in with those Van Eps books and in 15 minutes I’ll learn something that helps me enormously.”
A pyrotechnic single-note stylist, Rosenwinkel cites Allan Holdsworth as a major inspiration for his flowing linear concept. “I believe Holdsworth is incredibly important to the language of jazz guitar,” he says. “He’s overlooked because stylistically he’s in the fusion camp very solidly, but if you get beyond that and you listen to the actual content of his playing and how he’s relating to harmony and lines, you’ll discover a guitarist that is virtually unsurpassed in terms of harmonic and linear sophistication, which is totally applicable to every modern jazz guitarist. Furthermore, I think that Allan Holdsworth and John Coltrane have a lot in common in terms of their linear conceptions. They’re obviously very, very different and have qualities that place them in totally different zones, but I see a connection between the language that Coltrane used and the technique that Allan Holdsworth has developed. I’m heavily influenced and inspired by Coltrane and the language that he used, and Holdsworth is definitely a touchstone for how to do that on the guitar.”
A genuine musical chameleon, Rosenwinkel is already onto his next recording, a singer-songwriter project that he’s been working on in London with British rock producer Paul Stacey (who has done recordings with the Black Crowes and Oasis). “All through my life I’ve had these songs come out of me that are more coming from Led Zeppelin or even Duran Duran than jazz. I love ’80s music and ’70s rock, just as I love bebop. David Bowie is a hero of mine just as Bud Powell is a hero of mine.”