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REVIEW: Kurt Rosenwinkel - Kurt Rosenwinkel Plays Piano

Favorite Track: "Music" Least Favorite Track: "Whispers of Love"

On January 1st, 1963, one of the most important jazz records of all time was released, and quite frankly, it doesn’t get talked about enough. The great virtuoso Charles Mingus was known for many things: his transcendent bass playing, his embrace of dissonance, his unbelievable orchestration and arranging, and forging instant jazz classics like Mingus Ah Um and Jazz Portraits-Mingus in Wonderland. Right on the heels of his masterful career highlight The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady came an album that is as breathtakingly gorgeous as it is historical. Mingus Plays Piano is his only solo album, and is an intimate portrait on Mingus’s process and practice in jazz, showing us how well-versed he is on piano, the instrument he does most of his composing on. His harmonic knowledge and overall command and fluency of the keys is expansive, and proves the “jazz giant” status granted to him should not be taken lightly. Now, in 2022, one of the greatest jazz musicians of our time has released a similar solo piano project; one that highlights the importance of piano competency as a jazz musician as well as showcases the outstanding compositional methods this player has built. Kurt Rosenwinkel is without a doubt a guitarist in his own league, having one of the smoothest picking fluencies and arguably one of the richest harmonic expressions since John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett. Albums like The Next Step and Deep Song are just some examples of his seemingly limitless musicality, but his newest project, Kurt Rosenwinkel Plays Piano, shows that off and more. On it, we see Rosenwinkel’s deep connection to the piano as well as hear a whole new side to his playing, which he dedicates to the passing of his father, Lester Rosenwinkel

The most apparent thing that Kurt Rosenwinkel Plays Piano presents is a more intimate linkage to Kurt Rosenwinkel’s composer character. There is just something about the piano that outlines his compositions tenfold, allowing us to clearly hear every single note he intended. Moreover, it helps that he is playing solo. The opener “Love Signs” is a great example of that, especially in the first thirty seconds, where Rosenwinkel plays a rubato intro, exploring different colors with some dense voicings below the right hand melody. He then repeats an Ab pedal, switching between altered and major chords on top of it. The melody sets in, weaving through related harmonies and eventually arriving at a bridge section that ostinates the same top line while the bottom chords ascend and descend in major seconds and minor seconds. Towards the end, we get a bit of improvisation, not straying too far from accentuating certain chords in rhythmic patterns. The following track “Music” opens brilliantly, with some strong fifths played in the left hand and some beautifully crunchy ascending minor lines in the right. A ¾ meter is established, and Rosenwinkel transcends into one of his most standout melodies across his entire discography. It flows really nicely across the chord progression, with some of the changes referencing post-bop masters like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. “Music” is also a great example of his great sense of time. Playing ¾ unaccompanied is a difficult thing to do, but his competence on piano allows him to capture all the elements of a rhythm section playing odd meter. The chord changes effectively translate a bass player's job, and the way he hits little inflections here and there feels like a drummer using brushes, adding certain textures beneath the swingin’ melody.

“Hommage à Mitch” had previously been released on his album Star of Jupiter, and as jaw-dropping as that version is, with Kurt Rosenwinkel showing off his incredible vocal/guitar synchronicity as well as a monster solo from bassist Eric Revis and trading between pianist Aaron Parks and drummer Justin Faulkner, this one stands out on Kurt Rosenwinkel Plays Piano. He is a bit loose with the time in the beginning, notably locking it in at the final figure of the A section. In fact, for the first two minutes, he sticks very close to the main melody, switching into a solo with a strong triplet line. What follows shows his competence as a jazz pianist the best, as he walks bass with his left hand, and solos with his right, which is an extremely difficult thing to do, highlighting his split brain mentality. Moreover, the way he phrases his right hand gives off a stride piano esque style, like the great Thelonious Monk, but with slightly less wholetone tonality. Shortly after, the melody sets back in, and he does something noticeably killing on the first melodic figure. He hits a false two/five chord progression before going down a half step to hit the established one, giving the song even more harmonic depth. Besides this piece, another previously released track done with a quintet is “The Cross,” played by Rosenwinkel, saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Ali Jackson on 2005’s Deep Song, another outstanding crew and version. On Kurt Rosenwinkel Plays Piano, the version is relatively the same tempo and equally insane. Here, we see Rosenwinkel’s true piano chops, as he rips some crazy lines that are perfect examples of classic Rosenwinkel vocabulary. After grooving on the odd metered chord and bass sequence for a while, he hits a blues chromatic progression, going down to the one from the minor 3rd, ditching the bass line and letting his right hand take off in a flurry of ⅛ notes. His lines are unlike any other on guitar, and similarly, they are unlike any other on piano as well. If anything, that should be enough to tell you how serious a figure Kurt Rosenwinkel is in jazz.

Emotion and the feeling of loss is a heavy character across Kurt Rosenwinkel Plays Piano, most obviously on “For Dad.” Lester Rosenwinkel died March 9th, 2021 to pancreatic cancer. He was one of the most revered architects in Philadelphia, adding his vision to public housing, schools, and even jazz venues, and him being a jazz pianist himself makes this piece sing out that much more. Kurt Rosenwinkel strikes the first A, letting the reverb and space of the first few notes and chords speak volume to how much Lester meant to him, as a musician and as a father. At around a minute, he sits on that A again, before expressing the melody with even more beauty and sensuality. Every time he sits on a chord, you can almost hear and feel the strength and meaning necessary to hit the next chord, which only asserts the beautiful touch Rosenwinkel carries throughout this project. For the last minute, he plays in the upper register a lot more, accentuating the delicacy of the melody tenfold as the accompaniment in the left hand stays in the darker, richer octave. Another uniquely emotional piece is “Whispers of Love,” beginning with a chromatic lick walk down, and shortly after, delving into some short, beautiful ostinatos. Rosenwinkel sits and rolls on the lower register, phrasing the melody in the right hand like a singer; naturally. Another thing becomes apparent about his piano playing, which is the ability to control the dynamics separately in both hands. The way he is able to let the right hand sing out stronger than the left hand chordal accompaniment is no easy feat for any piano player. Finding the perfect balance in touch is something players struggle with for years, and Rosenwinkel has certainly unearthed that skill, which gives clue as to why his guitar playing is the way that it is.

Whether it’s guitar or piano, Kurt Rosenwinkel’s fluency and harmonic knowledge on chordal instruments is something to surely behold. Every project he’s been a leader of or been a part of, he brings a certain sound and element to the table you can’t find from anyone else; however, there is something to be said about him playing solo. He embodies every element of the rhythm section within his playing, as well as letting melody stand out as the true king in his music. Every composition on Kurt Rosenwinkel Plays Piano stays true to his style, and as expected, means this album is full of astounding pieces full of delicious harmonies, deep themes, and insane improvisations. If anything, this project was a hint into the compositional and improvisational brain of Kurt Rosenwinkel, and how something as significant as losing a loved one can inspire courageous and authentic music.

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