Kurt Rosenwinkel – The Remedy: Live At The Village Vanguard (2008)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Kurt Rosenwinkel first got my attention as the cerebral but melodic guitarist on Brian Blade’s masterpiece Perceptual back in 2000 and then via Rosenwinkel’s own major work of art Heartcore from three years later. That vastly overlooked record was a commanding balance of musicianship, texture and composition that today remains one of the best fusion releases of the last five years.

While songwriting may come in a close second, Rosenwinkel is first and foremost an accomplished guitar player. The reason why his guitar playing is so attractive to me is that it is a amalgamation of many of my favorite jazz guitarists: Pat Metheny, Pat Martino, John Scofield and Bill Frisell. This resulting mix is a style all his own: rich in melody and harmonics, solid in technique. You don’t even have to be a jazz fan to appreciate his playing style. Rosenwinkel has also been known to vocalize over his guitar lines, but in hushed tones, not scatting. It adds a little harmonic heft to his sound.

Only two albums after Heartcore, The Remedy: Live At The Village Vanguard finds Rosenwinkel in a live format in his working quintet consisting of Mark Turner (tenor sax), Aaron Goldberg (piano), Joe Martin (bass) and Eric Harland (drums). With Rosenwinkel albums coming less frequently than they used to and a curiosity about how this talented guitarist can perform in an acoustic straight-jazz setting on his feet made me eagerly anticipate this February release. Rosenwinkel uses this same guitar/sax/piano/bass/drums configuration for Heartcore’s studio follow up Deep Song. For that 2005 release, he was backed up by the Brad Mehldau Trio, Joshua Redman, and Ali Jackson. This time around, Rosenwinkel performs with the working band he has assembled since that recording.

The first thing that’s apparent from The Remedy is that Rosenwinkel had serious intentions about this live document. You don’t choose to record in the same venue where Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Joe Henderson and countless other greats laid to tape some memorable performances if you don’t plan on making a major statement about your ability to play jazz in front of a sophisticated live audience.

It’s not just the fact that so many jazz giants have recorded seminal records at this spot. Vanguard audiences are a discerning type and understand the music well enough to not interrupt musicians with ill-timed applause and other noises during the softer passages; this makes for better quality recordings, and The Remedy is no exception, here.

The other factor that comes into play before the proverbial needle hits the wax is that major label (Verve) artist Rosenwinkel chose to release this set on artistShare, a fan-funded artist project that represents a different model for getting music to the public without the need for the excessive overhead that comes with distributing music the conventional method. Rosenwinkel could have gone the major label route if he wanted to, but he seems to be saying, “this record is for the fans.”

The Remedy, which documents a gig from January 2006, contains only eight tunes, but spread out over 2 CDs and no song runs less than 11:37. All but two of them are new Rosenwinkel compositions. So, what you get on this album are some extended improvisions over some unfamiliar songs, making it a showcase for Rosenwinkel’s touring group as well as his composing skills.

The opening “Chords” is a bouncing, highly melodic number with a beastly head that features some fantastic tight cohesion between Martin and Harland. Rosenwinkel absolutely sizzles on his solo, chasing down every euphonious possibility the chord progression gives him. Turner and Goldberg follow suit while Harland is wrecking his drum kit. It doesn’t get quite as good the rest of the way as it does for “Chords,” but there are many more highlights, nonetheless.

“The Remedy” possesses a very pleasing, lilting melody, and Turner really brings out that attribute with his highly expressive playing. “Flute” supplies an even better showcase for Turner’s sax skills, who is sounding a lot like Joe Lovano on this cut.

“A Life Unfolds” is a softer number taken from Rosenwinkel’s second major label album The Next Step (2001). Kurt begins the piece solo, playing gently plucked harmonically complex chords before the rest of the group enters inconspicuously almost five minutes in and the sweetly melancholy melody is introduced. Turner again puts in a fine, lyrical solo, but it’s Goldberg who stands out more with some thoughtful ruminations seemingly mindful of the ghost of Evans lurking around.

Disc Two opens with a couple of compositions that came out of a trip to Russia, “View From Moscow” and “Terra Nova”. The rollicking 12/8 paced “Moscow” is spotlighted by Rosenwinkel’s lightning fast fretwork that managed to get this reserved crowd boisterous for a minute. “Terra Nova” is a gentle ballad where the leader enhances a pretty solo by his aforementioned vocalizing right along with it.

The album closes out with “Safe Corners” and “Myron’s World.” “Corners” is another instance of Rosenwinkel’s vocalizing, but this time it’s done in the opening solo guitar section. “Myron’s World” is the third piece that begins with an extended a cappella intro, but this time it’s provided by Turner. It’s only fair, too, since Turner composed this song. Harland finally gets turned completely loose and he takes advantage with an thundering display of rhythmic noise.

It’s tempting to complain about every song being protracted exercise requiring some intense listening to fully appreciate what’s going on with these performances. Certainly, this ain’t no background music. What Rosenwinkel set to accomplish with The Remedy, however, was to convey to his serious fans the true experience of his band and his music as he presents it to discriminating live audiences. Since I can’t get over to the fabled club to experience this for myself, this handy souvenir works just fine.

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