Kurt Rosenwinkel – Biography

There are artists who uphold what’s already been defined in music and then there are artists who do the defining. Guitarist, composer, and educator Kurt Rosenwinkel undisputedly sits among the trailblazers in the latter group.

With a career spanning almost twenty-five years, collaborating with dynamic peers like Brad Mehldau, Brian Blade, Mark Turner, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter; and esteemed jazz elders like Joe Henderson, Paul Motian and Gary Burton, Rosenwinkel’s indelible mark in music is the consummation of being steeped in the rich and deep traditions of jazz, springing off of the shoulders of such vital underpinnings to elevate his own art to new heights, evolving the language in a way no other guitarist has since his arrival.

Born on October 28, 1970 in Philadelphia, PA, Kurt Rosenwinkel’s musical immersion began at a young age. The child of musical parents (his mother, a classical pianist and his father, a great improviser), it wasn’t long before Rosenwinkel would start to develop his own voice, writing and performing his first song at the age of nine. Rosenwinkel started several neighborhood bands (first playing piano), and studied and performed with the focus of a seasoned professional. Picking up the guitar at twelve years old, Rosenwinkel became increasingly interested in jazz, attending local jam sessions around Philadelphia where he honed his skills among some of the scene’s most essential players like Al Jackson, Eddie Green, Tyrone Brown, and his musical father figure, alto saxophonist Tony Williams. “I would sit in with them and that’s when I first discovered what it feels like when the whole house is on their feet, and you’re playing and swinging. That feeling… it just got me,” Rosenwinkel admits.

Rosenwinkel attended Creative and Performing Arts High School where he expanded his musical network with future Philly greats like Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots. After spending two years at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Rosenwinkel had already earned a reputation which led him to tour and record with veterans Gary Burton and Paul Motian. As part of Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, Rosenwinkel experienced pivotal developments as a sideman during his decade-long tenure. It is also here that he further assimilates the traditions passed down from the fellow Philadelphian who worked with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, and Bill Evans.

Rosenwinkel moved to New York City in the early 1990s, collaborating with drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Ben Street, initially as a trio. Soon after, he would add saxophonist Mark Turner to the equation and with the group’s regular appearances at the renowned Smalls jazz club in Greenwich Village, together they would develop the sound that was an essential part of the musical landscape of their generation.

Rosenwinkel recorded his debut album as a leader, East Coast Love Affair, in 1996, and followed up with Intuit in 1999. Both independently released albums establish Rosenwinkel’s extraordinary capabilities within the bebop idiom. Although a prolific writer, winning the Composer’s Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1995, these first two albums also showcase his sagacity around standards material.

The following year, Rosenwinkel released Enemies of Energy, his first project for the Verve label, which featured his adept group of Turner, Street, and Ballard, with the addition of Scott Kinsley on keyboards, playing a complete set of original compositions. Rosenwinkel also joined another landmark group, Brian Blade’s Fellowship band, and appeared on the drummer’s Perceptual album later the same year.

After dealing with a crisis of feeling completely disconnected to music, Rosenwinkel went through a stunning transformation. Feeling that his musical knowledge was an obstruction to genuinely enjoying the art, he flipped the keys in the tuning pegs of his guitar, completely obliterating what he knew. After shedding this alternate tuning, the process resulted in a creative breakthrough, which produced one of his most seminal recordings, The Next Step, featuring the modern classic “Zhivago”. A further documentation of his close-knit relationship with Turner, Street and Ballard, The Next Step catapulted Rosenwinkel to another realm, placing his innovation as an improviser and composer front and center.

It’s also here that Rosenwinkel introduces one of the most compelling elements of his sound – his voice. Tracing the voice and its function back to his childhood, it was initially a source of transcendence. A sort of “head buzzing” resulting from making vibrations with the mouth allowed Rosenwinkel to feel a sense of freedom. This eventually evolved to actually singing what he was playing, becoming an intrinsic part of his music.

A huge fan of hip-hop and artists like The Notorious B.I.G., Rosenwinkel worked with hip-hop veteran Q-Tip, formally of ground-breaking rap trio A Tribe Called Quest, on his next Verve release, Heartcore. The two collaborated on Q-Tip’s Renaissance project and Rosenwinkel was a part of his band, gaining a respect and trust of the legendary hip-hop artist and producer which organically led to Q-Tip co-producing Rosenwinkel’s experimental album which peels back yet another layer of his artistry, introducing soundscapes that draw from various musical genres and influences.

After the release of Deep Song in 2005, Rosenwinkel’s chapter closer for Verve, which features another stellar ensemble of jazz heavy hitters like Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier, Ali Jackson and Ballard, Rosenwinkel begins a new phase of his career with a new label and a new band. The Remedy, released in 2008, is a live documentation of Rosenwinkel performing at the legendary Village Vanguard; a venue at which Rosenwinkel’s performances are consistently highly anticipated. Aaron Goldberg, Joe Martin, and Eric Harland make their appearance along with longtime collaborator Mark Turner on the deeply affective double album.

Rosenwinkel holds on to Harland and recruits bassist and close colleague Eric Revis for his next album, Reflections, a collection of mainly ballads. Aptly titled, Rosenwinkel takes his fans back to his early predilections for standards, with gorgeous renditions of songs by Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter. Rosenwinkel also gives an under the radar ode to hip-hop on the Shorter classic, “Fall”, which uses the Q-Tip hit “Vivrant Thing” as the rhythmic foundation, played impeccably by Harland. Rosenwinkel continuously exhibits a knack for recruiting extraordinary drummers, stating, “I’m very particular about the drums, because my music has roots in a lot of different musical styles and so I need for the people in my band and especially the drummer to understand how all of that relates to each other, and understands them in a way that’s not stylistically separated from each other.”

Rosenwinkel’s multi-layered approach to guitar is highlighted superbly in the trio context further exemplifying his perpetual inventiveness. “Taking care of the harmony and the melody at the same time… I like that freedom to create that space for myself, and also the instrumental implications for that as a sort of workshop for the guitar; to develop the techniques to do that. [Trio is] a context that you can really grow a lot in.”

Rosenwinkel follows up with a starkly contrasting project in 2010 with Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos (OJM), a Portugal- based big band. For a few years prior to the release, Rosenwinkel had been working with various big bands such as Nonet at the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in The Netherlands. After doing some live performances with OJM, the band approached Rosenwinkel with the idea of a recording, which he fully embraced. Our Secret World features arrangements from Carlos Azevedo and Pedro Guedes of OJM, as well as saxophonist Ohad Talmor. A stunning re-visitation of some of Rosenwinkel’s finest work, Our Secret World celebrates his significance as a composer and leader, and also displays his ever-expanding command of his instrument.

Rosenwinkel released Star of Jupiter, his tenth album as a leader, in the Fall of 2012, debuting his new quartet which includes pianist Aaron Parks, drummer Justin Faulkner and Revis on bass. His first quartet album since The Next Step, this fiery group made up of rising stars and veterans-in-the-making possess a unique ability to embody a modern and classic feel, swinging and grooving with equally dynamic ease and intensity. It is surely this complexity yet relatable sense that is Rosenwinkel’s prowess. His ability to connect with his audience is the benefitting result of his continuous desire and motivation to make clearer and stronger his natural connection to the universe.

Rosenwinkel lives in Berlin and currently teaches at The Jazz Institute Berlin.