The president of Berklee, on hand to kick off the Berklee, er, Beantown Jazz Festival, quoted no less than Bill Frisell in describing Kurt Rosenwinkel as one of the most distinctive voices on guitar today, playing brilliantly and wearing no particular influence on his sleeve. Last night at Berklee, Rosenwinkel took his most distinctive playing to a venerable setting, painting his playing and writing on top of a big band, in this case the Portugese OJM (Orquestra Jazz de Matosinos). The concert consisted of seven of the nine charts on their new album, Our Secret World.
I have to admit I stupidly slept on Rosenwinkel in my time in New York- when I was there he was playing at Smalls a lot- so listening to his records in preparing for this concert has been a pleasant discovery. Frisell is not overstating; his improvising is at once thoughtful and virtuosic. I bumped into a former student who is studying at Berklee, and she said in his afternoon workshop Kurt talked a lot about guitarists paying more attention to the sound of the guitar, and trying to be musical and thoughtful in even the most mundane parts of your practicing. You can here it in his playing- his block chord intro to "Zhivago" was lovely, a warm tone and clever dense chords lingering in a wash of reverb. And his lines are remarkable, smart, clean and at once studied and kinetic. While Kurt took most of the solo turns, there were a couple of saxophone solos (the band was introduced, but I couldn't catch names through the thick Portuguese accent of the conductor and the fuzzy acoustics of the room). They were solid players, clearly very competent and checking out all the hip New Yorkers- the tenor player owed a lot of his phrasing choices to Donnie McCaslin. The rhythm section was generally solid, with the drummer shining on the brighter tempos and a little sluggish on the slower waltz "Cloister".
While I came out a much bigger fan of Kurt, I can't say I loved the show. Part of the problem was the charts- Kurt writes twisty, abstract tunes, which are inherently hard to arrange. (having not once but twice written terrible charts on Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge", I understand both the attraction and the peril of this work) "Zhivago" was the most successful chart, with Kurt's long but lilting waltz form embellished attractively with lots of twisty counterlines, and a nice Kurt plus saxophones soli just before the final restatement of the head. But the title track was more the norm- I felt like the tune was hard to grab onto, and then there was a lot of dense writing thrown on top of an already dense tune, which left me more confused than happy as a listener. And the writing favored long pads and, with few punches in the brass against the melody, which especially in a tall room like Berklee can make the band sound wishy-washy. (The band didn't help by being very casual with the end of notes. Even at the end of some of the tunes the cutoffs weren't clean)
In addition, I thought there was a sameness to a lot of the writing- brief intro, Kurt playing the melody doubled by a saxophone, Kurt solos, with backings coming in somewhere in the second half of the first chorus, then a little writing- usually development, only one tune, "Deja Vu" had an old fashioned shout chorus, then the head out. There were beautiful nuggets in the writing- the middle of "Cloister", with the drums only barely present and an ethereal melody, shimmered and glowed, leading to an inspired bit of blowing by Kurt, and the aforementioned "Zhivago" was a lot of fun- but my ears screamed for more space and clarity. It reminded me of some of Kenny Wheeler's and Dave Holland's lesser big band work in both good and bad ways. The good- ambitious representations of challenging music, with a lot of harmonic richness and brilliant blowing by the frontman. The less good- a certain monochromaticism and muddiness in both writing and ensemble playing. That said, there was some great music made, and I hope both sides pursue this collaboration further- there is room to expand here.