A Ritual of Transformation: Kurt Rosenwinkel Turns His Hand to the Piano

4,Apr,2022

Since his mid-30s, Kurt Rosenwinkel, now 51, has held quasi-guitar god stature among connoisseurs of the instrument, jazz-oriented or otherwise. That’s one reason why Plays Piano, Rosenwinkel’s recent solo piano recital on his label, Heartcore, is so intriguing to contemplate and listen to.

Throughout this recital of 10 original works, Rosenwinkel presents a compelling pianistic conception, related structurally, if not tonally, to his guitar personality in its unfailing melodicism and distinctive harmonic language, informed by the canons of classical music, hardcore jazz and various streams of rock and Black American Music.

A few years ago, while observing Rosenwinkel teach a master class, I heard him tell a student who’d asked for advice on the process of finding an instrumental voice to “Let your instrument tell you what to do.” He elaborated: “The instrument is a filter through which your music organizes itself. If you’re playing guitar, it shows you things based on its nature. If you’re playing piano, what you find will organize your music. I don’t need the guitar for my musical identity. It’s just an instrument, and it happens to be the one I’ve developed the most or am most known for. In many ways, playing piano feels more natural, like it’s my mother instrument.”

For that reason, Rosenwinkel has frequently expressed his desire to do a solo piano album. Now he has free rein on his label to actualize his variegated aspirations, as, for example, on the March release The Chopin Project, comprising Swiss pianist Jean-Paul Brodbeck’s arrangements for quartet of nine works by the iconic Polish composer. Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Rosenwinkel — taking a long break from mixing the second Heartcore album by Brazilian guitarist Pedro Martins, a member of his Caipi band — spoke about these and other projects via Zoom from his studio-office on the ground floor of the two-story loft in the inner courtyard of a Berlin apartment complex he’s called home for the past decade.

Talk about your personal history with the piano.

Piano was my first instrument. I started when I was 9. I loved the sound of the instrument and went up to it. Since I didn’t know any songs, I figured I had to make one up if I wanted to play it. So from the very beginning I just started writing songs, and I still write a lot of songs on the piano. It’s always been like a musical sanctuary. It’s not my main instrument, so I let it all hang out. I don’t worry about shaping my craft as obsessively as I do on the guitar. That brings a certain intimacy to it.

How did guitar win out over piano, so to speak?

I started at 12 on guitar, and that’s what I focused on for all my teenage years — piano became secondary. By the time I realized that I had to choose — when it was time to go to Berklee — I was farther along with the guitar. That’s when I decided to take some formal piano lessons, because I hadn’t had any since I was really young. I took a year of lessons with Jimmy Amadie, a wonderful pianist and teacher in the Philly area who passed away [in 2013]. He had an extreme form of degradation in his hands, and could only play a half-hour a day, which was a miracle in and of itself. So whenever he played in the lessons, it put that much more meaning on everything that he chose to do. That was reflected in his teaching method about choosing voicings on the instrument.

Is piano associated with one stream of expression and guitar associated with another stream of expression?

Guitar evolved in a strange, idiosyncratic way through my own discoveries on the instrument. I was pretty much writing my own songs and listening to jazz and fusion and electric jazz. With piano, I was finding sounds and writing songs that I gravitated to, like, McCoy Tyner and Coltrane, but in my own way. I’ve continued to write throughout my life. My songs are really what defines me and shapes my playing on guitar. They require me to really know the instrument and be able to hang on my own compositions. A lot of my songs flow on piano, but it’s twice the challenge to play them on guitar. Like, the other day I saw a clip of Chick Corea and Joe Henderson playing “Trinkle Tinkle” on a festival. It’s difficult to play that melody on guitar; it requires strange fingerings. Then I started playing it on piano and I was like: “Oh my God, this makes so much sense physically. Why do I play guitar? I should just play piano.”

So why a solo piano album now?

I always wanted to make a solo piano album, and when the lockdown happened, that was the natural time to do it. So I set up my Irmler piano, a cheapo upright that I love, and made the environment really conducive, with nice lighting and cool textures around, and got into playing. I tried to figure out how to record it as best as I could, which took a lot of experimentation — but I think I found a good solution. It’s intimate, three-dimensional, soft and listenable.

Whenever I write a song on piano, I spend a lot of time performing it, figuring out the mechanics and the creative, improvisational spaces in the tune — and I play the song over the years, so I have an emotional relationship with each song. Some are more demanding than others in terms of how good a pianist I need to be to really play them. Some are more demanding — I can play them, but they’re too challenging to perform as well as I would like. But most of them I can play and make a decent performance, and on some I can do a lot. So for the album, I started to record all the songs I know, in no particular order, and I homed in on the ones that felt like they were working, and did several takes of each one, and then chose the best combination. I didn’t know which constellation of tunes the album would end up being.

All these songs, even the rubato ones, are very rhythmically solid. You don’t really miss the bassist or the drummer. You draw a lot of attention for your orchestration on guitar, your harmonic concept and so on, but would you speak to the role of groove in your aesthetic?

One thing that I love about the piano is that it’s so direct, so physical. The relationship of impulse to note is one to one — one action, one note. On guitar, it’s like two completely different actions equal one note. If you strum a chord, you’re hitting the first string first and the last string last. So unless you’re using your fingers on guitar, piano is much more rhythmic and syncopated, like I’m the drummer in the rhythm section. You’ve got the left hand, the bass, the rhythm, the melody — it’s like the whole band, the whole feel. The way I’ve built my approach to the guitar is less in the rhythm section like that.

 

Back in the ’80s, when you were a teenager and sitting in at clubs in Philly with primarily African-American clientele, I’ll bet you internalized a certain groove conception from drummers like Mickey Roker, Byron Landham …

Byron Landham. Mickey Roker. Al Jackson was the drummer I played with most; he was super swinging. But everything is rhythm. I don’t really see any one place where you get it. It’s like life and living, and the syncopation of feelings and moments, and what you find on the instrument, and how you’re feeling that day. But definitely, feeling this infectious joy of swing — community music — was foundational for me, in every way. I love jazz music, and a lot of other kinds of music, and it all comes together in my music.

I’m curious about “The Cross,” which you recorded on 2005’s Deep Song and again on Plays Piano.

“The Cross” is a musical manifestation of the Kabbalistic Cross. It’s a ritual in the Western magical tradition of Kabbalah, a preparatory ritual where you where you sanctify your space and declare your intentions to the universe before you perform intentional rituals. You declare them to be in service with the God Principle, and the alignment with nature. This is also from the Jewish esoteric tradition, because the Kabbalah underpins all the major religions at their root — Christianity, as well. That’s why I was able to walk into a Catholic church in Italy and take a communion. It was in a very rural part of the country. The pastor came up to me later, and he said, “I have not seen you here before.” I said, “I’m just here playing a show.” “Are you Catholic?” “No, I’m not Catholic.” “Well, you can’t take the communion.” I said, “Yes, I can. I know what the communion is about. It’s a ritual of transformation; you take a neutral host and imbue it with your will and your imagination of how you want to become a better person, and you ingest that — and that’s a transmutational ritual for self-improvement.” He was like, “Well, you’re right.”

So the Kabbalistic Cross is a ritual that involves sacred names, activating Sephiroth, which are the Kabbalistic equivalent of chakras, by intoning a melodic entity into an imagination of these Sephiroth that have functions. The Sephiroth are the circles of esoteric function on the tree of life. So the song is a literal procession through the Kabbalistic Cross ritual that I used to do all the time, and still is a big part of me. I’m not as active with the actual rituals as before, but I can contact it very immediately when I want to.

 

Do you see yourself as undertaking some sort of shamanistic function when you’re performing?

Yes. That’s what I consider to be really what I’m doing. The music is the method and the interaction with the vibrational account of the world. I can negotiate with the functions of the balance of, you might say, good or evil in the world — positivity and negativity, balance and unbalance; that’s a better way of saying good and evil. It’s just balance or chaos. And through music, you can create more balance.

That attitude connects you to other ritualistic and shamanistic forms of music making, particularly ones that descend from animistic religions — Afrodiasporic religions, for example.

Music is a space that allows you to contact many kinds of intelligences, the spiritual intelligences. You mentioned African religions. There’s this figure, this icon, this saint, I think in the Senufo tribe, and I came into contact with this Senufo figure from a postcard that I found in Seattle. I’ve had a relationship with this guy for a long time; he pops up a lot in my music, and you can find him on my album covers and on my CDs. Kokopelli in the Native American tradition is the same kind of guy — storyteller, magician, musician, troubadour, wanderer, you know, magic maker.

You titled “For Dad,” also on the new album, for your father, Lester Rosenwinkel, who passed away about a year ago. From reading his obituary and your social media descriptions, he had many dimensions to his personality: a self-taught piano player who improvised. An architect motivated to do socially uplifting work. He also liked golf and was a Rotarian.

I recorded the piece before my dad passed. But it was an improvisation, which I titled “For Dad,” first because he died, and also because I feel connected to him spiritually, on a soul level, when I’m improvising on the piano. I sound like him; we share that sound, that harmony.

Was he your portal into jazz?

I don’t know. It was more like I discovered jazz through my journey — through listening to albums and following my ear and being turned on to new music. My dad always remained a singular musical entity in my world. The way that he played was unique. As I started to learn more and had more experience in jazz, I would come back, and then I’d realize all his connections to jazz, and also all the ways that he was outside normal conventions in the mainstream of jazz. For example, playing a standard, he would go off on tangents and make up different compositional sections, let’s say, to “All the Things You Are.” All of a sudden there’d be a C section, or he’d change keys and do all kinds of wild stuff. He didn’t follow any guardrails or tracks; he was completely free. He never played a gig in his life, never played with anybody else. He was completely in his own world. It was amazing for me to learn so much about that duality — the conventions, what they are, what purpose they serve, their role in people playing together, but then also about the creative freedom that is possible. When you go to school and start learning how everybody does it, you can develop this conformity in your own creative thinking.

I love this neologistic title, “Reassurement.”

This song has been with me since the mid-’90s, as “E Flat Minor Fragment,” but this is my first recording of it. When my dad passed, he was in Philadelphia and I was in Berlin. Even though I couldn’t be there with him, the physical distance didn’t mean so much because I feel connected with him on a soul level. We were on FaceTime, and I saw him pass away at maybe 3 in the morning. The next day, the clouds were the way they are on the cover of the album. That’s a photograph taken the day after my dad died. Michaela, my partner in Heartcore Records, came and said, “Kurt, come out here; you’ve got to see this.” I went outside and the clouds were like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I felt like that was my dad visiting me to say goodbye — as a way of, like, “You can’t come here, so I’ll go there.” The next day, I was riding my bike and I stopped by the river, and the light reflected off the river in a way that I had also never seen in my life. I felt that was also his spirit inhabiting that phenomenon, as a “reassurement” to me that he was there.

During the past two years, you’ve released a profusion of recordings on your Heartcore label. Talk about the ways in which the label’s mission has evolved.

The idea was for Heartcore to be an expression of the music that I want to do and that I value, and what I discover in other musicians around the world, whether or not they’re jazz musicians. My idea is to make great music that is connected at the source, metaphorically in parallel with the Kabbalah. The Kabbalah is the source at which all traditions meet, where you can experience brotherhood and communion between many different manifestations of humanity and religion; in music, it’s the source at which you feel connected with musicians who are pure and able to access that part of humanity we all have in common. Genre does not function on that level. It’s the soul level that we have in common, and then it spreads out in a myriad of forms. Through the years, we’ve been able to take the steps we’ve needed to mature as a label and get our feet on the ground. Now we’re working hard, doing lots of different things, continuing to sign new artists and release records from musicians who we think are great.

Could your musical production on Heartcore have happened if you weren’t your own boss?

I probably wouldn’t have been able to make a piano album — though maybe I would have. I doubt I would have been able to do my rock album, which is coming. The songs that travel through me, I don’t know what they’re going to be. But when a certain constellation of songs forms, that becomes a genre within my musical cosmos and begins to form its own identity, and that usually becomes an album. That’s what happened with Caipi. All of a sudden, these sort of Brazilian songs started to appear as stars in the sky, and then they formed their own cosmos, and I started referring to them as caipi songs [shorthand for caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail], and then they formed an actual constellation, and that became a whole genre part of the universe. In the same way, all these rock songs have formed their own constellation.

Let’s move to The Chopin Project. That’s a swinging record, with Jorge Rossy doing what he likes to do, playing time really well. We can discuss this date on a couple of levels. Your relationship to classical music over the years; how you see your compositional work in relation to that canon. Also, it speaks to a close relationship with a European musician with a very strong identity, based in jazz but coming out of his own experience.

All of those elements that you mentioned are a part of the Chopin album, and all things about it that I really love. My mother plays classical piano, and I grew up listening to her play the repertoire — Beethoven, Schumann, Bach, Ravel, Chopin, Ligeti, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Prokofiev. She’s always working on the piano repertoire of the great classical composers. I love that world, immerse myself in it, and find a lot of connection with it and inspiration from it. I love the details. I love the specificity with which a composer can create a very particular feeling, like a Michelin chef can create one particular combination of sensations and tastes that really triangulate a specific feeling.

So it excited me to have an opportunity to bring everything I’ve developed in music to arrangements of Chopin’s music. When I heard Jean-Paul [Brodbeck]’s arrangements, I felt he’d created such a brilliant sort of membrane between these two worlds, with both the specificity and care for Chopin’s original compositions, but also opening it up for us to bring our souls to it, bring the way that we play in an improvisational context.

Chopin’s music seems to lend itself to bebop piano. Barry Harris studied Chopin extensively. You’ve often cited Bud Powell as an ur-influence, and certain iconic figures from the bebop era — none of them guitarists — as core to the way you think about music.

I think the sophisticated use of the diminished chord to navigate the space between the degrees of a scale is a key to this bridge between Chopin’s music and Bud and Barry Harris. That connection of chromatic harmony, as it relates to tonal harmony, to diatonic harmony, is similar between Chopin and bebop. It’s not just first degree, second degree, different parts of the scale, but using all this chromatic harmony as pivot points to modulate into different keys. All these things that happen in the harmony are also the bread and butter of bebop’s harmonic mechanisms. Also, Chopin’s compositions contain a lot of song form, and it’s inspiring to see how much material he works into it — fascinating intros, amazing outros and codas.

Is playing piano music on guitar part of your practice? Is classical music part of your conceptual or physical practice? Once a song comes to you, how do you develop the composition?

Songs come into being in many different ways. My role is different depending on which kind of song it is. Some songs come out through a meditation, when I become like a channel that you can open. When a song comes out of that meditative state, it’s usually fully formed; it doesn’t need much fiddling with after the fact. Songs also come through in a scientific way, where you discover something while you’re playing, and then you start investigating. That’s more like archaeology, sort of like, “Oh, there’s a tip of a pyramid there,” and then, by the end, you’ve uncovered this civilization. Scientific experimentation is another way to get material: You take a progression, turn it on its side and do this and do that, and hit it with some light and put it through this fragment, and put it through the darkroom — just throw everything at this idea and see what it does.

As far as playing classical music on the guitar, pretty much the extent of what I’ve played on guitar that literally comes from classical music is the Bach Lute Suites and some pieces by Leo Brouwer. I think at some point I would like to make my own version of an album of the Lute Suites. At the moment, it’s just something I do because I love to watch Bach unfold on the instrument. To hear those sounds, it’s just amazing. – Ted Panken