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Kurt Rosenwinkel Standards Trio

Reflections

Produced by Kurt Rosenwinkel

Wommusic

Released November 17, 2009

Metheny-esque in his versatility, yet aggressively daring in his devotion to groove, Kurt Rosenwinkel is one of the most interesting and well-rounded guitarists on the scene today. Rosenwinkel seamlessly weaves together elements of funk, bop, classic rock, and modern compositional (a la Ravel), producing works that are both innovative and listenable — the well-mannered wing of the avant-garde, if you will. His work may be haunting, joyful, melancholic, or thoughtful, but it’s always modern, and ahead of the curve.

So it’s an odd step, at first glance, for him to put out an album composed entirely of standards and standard-inspired faire. Working with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Eric Harland, Rosenwinkel’s latest albums, Reflections, stays in the fake book zone for most of its 50-minute journey. The trio pays heavy dues to Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter, as well as earlier bop and broadway-inspired ballads.

Fortunately it’s more than just paying dues, as Rosenwinkel is doing a lot more than regurgitating old jingles. He is consciously examining and bending the familiar into a new form. This is no ode to the iconoclast, but a challenge to the imitator to imitate even better.

His musical choices are notable. Shying away from the technical ferocity of Parker, or the aggressive insistence of Coltrane, Rosenwinkel emulates the more subtle tunes of Monk and Shorter — two musicians who, while renowned, were never part of as much of a sonic “movement” as some of the other greats. It wasn’t that there was less sound, but that their sound was much harder to put a finger on. Ornette Coleman had free, Miles Davis had modal, etc. The list goes on. But no music theorist ever had a good word for Monk. Because of that, Monk was always a lot less pretentious, and, behind his light-hearted exterior, a lot more difficult to grasp. Part of playing the jazz classic is about running chops, but Rosenwinkel is wise to transcend that, and brings out the tunes that not only could use reevaluation, but demand it.

The trio’s playing on the album is more ambient and ethereal than the originals’. Rosenwinkel’s tone on the album is more gentle than that of the old masters — lending the tunes an added twinge of nostalgia — while remaining playful and unafraid to segue for a moment before returning to the chart. It’s not exactly living in the past, but it does beg the questions of how beholden we are to the paths cleared by Monk, Miles, Bird, etc., and how we think or talk about everything from Zorn to Zeppelin to Biggie Smalls that came later (with words or chords). The answer isn’t clear to me: is Reflections a still-enriching source of feeling, or merely a backdrop to the wholly separate way we experience music, and other media, today?

But it’s that question that makes the trio’s playing all the more interesting. The group’s canvas is not a white sheet, but a pre-shaped sculpture, a collage of recognized patterns and riffs that every jazz aficionado knows by heart. It is then every deviation from this form — every smoothed corner or roughened surface — that stands out and informs us. Reflections does not stand alone, but meshes with an already present aural history (a different one for every listener). It is a tacit comment on the use of form in art — from the villanelle to the blues — and on the familiar as a whole, as general as the twelve-tone system or as specific as a Real Book chart.

So welcome to the non-Time Life Jazz Century in Review. After nearly a hundred years of looking forward, it’s healthy to look back. Sometimes it’s the best view there is.