The Next Step – 2001
Verve – Catalog #3145430422
Release Date: 01/09/2001
It’s the jazz artist’s dilemma: how to push ahead creatively so that the tradition is upheld while simultaneously forging new paths? In the past two decades, several young jazz musicians have taken bold steps in their early recordings only to falter when they were called upon to up the ante on later projects. Then again, perhaps that intrepid leap to new territory/greater maturity proved to be too premature a move for many. Not so for Kurt Rosenwinkel, who on his second Verve recording appropriately titled The Next Step asserts his role as one of the best guitarists of the new jazz generation.
“This album has a lot of significance for me,” says Rosenwinkel, who made his Verve debut last January with The Enemies of Energy. “It represents the culmination of many life phases for me. Some of these phases started ten years ago and have finally found resolution in this record. It represents the next step in my music and in my life.”
Kurt Rosenwinkel: guitar & piano; Mark Turner: tenor saxophone; Ben Street: bass; Jeff Ballard: Drums
Produced by the guitarist and associate-produced by Verve A&R man Jason Olaine, The Next Step finds Rosenwinkel traversing new ground (all eight numbers are the guitarist’s originals) with familiar cohorts. Joining him are his longtime bandmates Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, Ben Street on bass, and Jeff Ballard on drums. “This is the best of what we do as a band,” says Rosenwinkel. “This had not been documented on record until now. It fully realizes our relationship as a band. People who have been hearing us live for years have been waiting for this record.”
Rosenwinkel hastens to note that the band first formed as a guitar-bass-drum trio in 1992, expanding to include Turner on sax in 1994 is a “magical thing.” Rare in the jazz world where groups disband on a regular basis because of other opportunities, Rosenwinkel’s quartet is a seven-year-project still in progress. “We’ve grown up together. We’re making the move from the past into the future and looking forward to the next step after this one.”
The Next Step is personally significant to Rosenwinkel as a guitarist because it also represents a first for completely capturing his sound wordless vocals and guitar on record. “After you find your voice and you establish your sound, you’ve got to document that,” he says. “It’s often elusive.”
Another important growth for Rosenwinkel was his willingness to loosen his guitar tethers. “I wrote several tunes including ‘Zhivago,’ ‘Use of Light,’ and ‘A Life Unfolds’ during a period of time when I was so discontented with playing the guitar that I started to explore alternate tunings,” he explains. “My knowledge of the guitar was hindering my relationship to the music. I felt like I knew too much about what I was doing and not hearing the music directly.”
Rosenwinkel’s solution? Turning the tuning pegs to “obliterate all knowledge of the guitar in one fell swoop, to sabotage what I knew.” He notes, “All of a sudden I knew nothing. I had to rely on my ears and touch. That helped me to experiment and improvise.”
Rosenwinkel waxes philosophical on how every period of development in any artist’s career must go through some stage of instability: “You start off not knowing what you’re doing, then you organize things so they become ordered. When that order becomes static, you have to break it up to create another state of instability, which, in turn, throws you back into chaos. That’s what continuing on to the next step is all about.”
A Philly native, Rosenwinkel became a bona fide guitar fan thanks to the music of Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Bill Frisell. Opening the doors to new possibilities on his instrument, they gave Rosenwinkel license to explore new terrain. He attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, then moved to New York where he scored a gig with Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band; he’s still a member.
When not on tour, he frequented Smalls, the popular after-hours New York jazz club, to develop his music with his own band the same outfit featured on The Next Step.
On the album, Rosenwinkel opens with “Zhivago,” which has a whimsical, uptempo beginning and features one of several outstanding melodic duos with Turner on the CD. “It’s in 3/4 time and very melodic, but fast,” Rosenwinkel says. “I loved the movie Dr. Zhivago, and was especially impressed by the imagery. I feel this tune has a kinship to the film.”
“Minor Blues” is just that: a blues in a minor key with an uptempo groove and a kind of mysterious vibe. According to the leader, it’s a number the band always plays on gigs. “It’s a simple vehicle for having a lot of fun and for going in a lot of different directions.”
Of the introspective-to-swinging number, “A Shifting Design,” Rosenwinkel says: “This tune is fascinating to me. It’s in an alternate tuning, so when I play the guitar I have no idea what chords or notes I’m playing. The tune is all shapes to me, which is why I call it ‘A Shifting Design.’ The shifting designs are on the fretboard.”
The ruminative ballad “Paths of the Heart” also holds special significance for Rosenwinkel: “It confirms my whole belief that you have to follow your heart when you play. The only true path is the path of the heart.”
Originally conceived as a tune called “Filters/Tribute” dedicated to jazz guitar god Wes Montgomery and “a whole bunch of New York City pianists who do great things with their left hands,” the new “Filters” here features a catchy head, a jaunty delivery, and more scintillating sax-guitar interplay. That’s followed by the dreamy, atmospheric tune “Use of Light” a beautiful, elegant piece that builds in lyrical dynamics.
The CD concludes with the title track and the soft-toned, hushed number “A Life Unfolds.” Rosenwinkel notes: “It’s another altered tuning piece. That song came to me when I was playing in another altered-tuning world. It came from there.”
And what about “The Next Step?” It’s a fine piece where Rosenwinkel sets aside his guitar and performs for its entirety on the piano. Is this the next “next step” for him? He laughs and downplays the notion, explaining that the piano was his first instrument before the six-string (that is, if you “don’t count the screeching violin lessons,” he adds). “I write tunes on the piano. I love to play. Actually I feel the piano and guitar inform each other, especially in relation to harmonic voicings. That’s really been an advantage to me.”
So, The Next Step is simply that: the next “giant step” of a young guitarist willing to challenge himself by breaking old molds and casting new forms.
Tagged as The Next Step + Categorized as Music