Saturday, February 25, 2006

Kurt Rosenwinkel at U.Va.

Kurt Rosenwinkel @ U.Va. (Part 1: Friday)

This might well have been the best weekend I have ever spent here at U.Va. And this just might well be the best weekend I will ever spend here. I attended three events in two days where I had opportunity to listen to one of the most inspiring musicians out there today: Kurt Rosenwinkel.

If you live in Charlottesville and are interested in music at all, or any kind of creative art, that is to say, anything truly human, and you did not come to the New Music Ensemble concert Friday night, pray tell: what on earth were you doing?

It made absolutely no sense to me that that event was free of charge. For such beautiful, grand, ambitious works of music that I was fortunate to listen to that night, I would have easily payed 50 dollars, nay, 150 dollars. It was that good.

That John D'earth, the U.Va. professor who directs the Jazz Ensemble and leads the Free Bridge Quintet, is an awesome trumpeter, quite many people know. But that he is also one of the most innovative, intelligent, and genre-daring composers of our day, ought to be known much more widely than it is now.

Silent Faustus, which opened up the concert with the acclaimed chamber group, Kandinsky Trio, is D'earth's own adaptation of the same work originally composed for F. W. Murnau's 1926 silent film, Faustus. I did not know that a trio could sound with such power, grandeur, and intensity, bringing forth the vast scale of the legend.

D'earth's mastery of arrangement technique is astonishing: despite himself being a jazz trumpeter, he knows how to do things with the strings. The work easily transcends the category of film-music. I particularly liked the part towards the Act III (I think), where Faust recollects his one true love, Gretchen. A sweet, pining melody is first played by the cello, then by the violin, while the piano accompanies with an intense and cold shower of chords.

But of course the highlight of the night was Natural Bridge, a suite piece for chamber trio, acoustic bass, and jazz guitar, where Kurt Rosenwinkel was featured. It is "an attempt to combine the languages and procedures of two different musical worlds: classical/contemporary chamber music and waht is inadequately referred to as "jazz"" (program note).

And when D'earth says this, he doesn't have in his mind, for example, the one-directional absorption of jazz into classical music which composers like Ravel attempted (as beautiful and successful as his works are). Nor does he mean mere arranging of classical piece into jazz instruments, like Coltrane's adaptation of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. He means the total integration and free interaction of these two genres, which results in a phenomenal work of art whose power and beauty completely defy categorization.

"Perhaps one discovers, as this cobination is explored," D'earth writes, "that these two musical worlds are not so very different, after all; that they invite each other in and, by reciprocal influence, suggest new directions and possibilities."

You have probably heard of some would-be "fusion" works that attempt to break down the wall between "the classical" and "the jazz," resulting in rather uncomfortably mingled pieces of music that does justice to neither genre. Such an attempt is bound to fail, for one sole reason--that there is really no wall separating these genres in the first place. To see this rather natural truth of "music," however, requires a very high degree of musical knowledge, affinity, creativity, and freedom. And John D'earth possesses these qualities. This work is absolutely amazing. It's a full-course of world music. Poly-rhythm, free-style improvisation, blues, scherzo... everything is fair game.

Let me here at least begin to talk about the guitarist. Kurt Rosenwinkel is probably the greatest jazz musician who is able to sing his instrument. The guitar and his body are one during the performance, and the melodies flow one after another with such beauty and elegance. His virtuosity is just the kind that does not condescendingly shows of its virtuosity, but takes the audience's mind away into a different world of musical ideas where his mind dwells.

The notes played in his sweet clean tone are raindrops, as it were, that sometimes fall quietly, sometimes drop with gentle weight, and still other times cascade and create misty atmosphere, upon the billowing surface of water that is the accompanying strings instruments and the piano. Kurt Rosenwinkel seemed to be just the kind of guitarist whose voice is called for by this magnificently ambitious work (although the works was not originally written for him). I sincerely hope they would record this some time soon, which will definitely be the beginning of a new phase for the history of both classical and jazz music.

Such a night, where I was able to sit down at the very front row and listen to the sparks of those absolute artistic geniuses, has never been, and will not come so often in the future.

Kurt Rosenwinkel @ U.Va. (Part 2: Saturday)

How amazingly rare and precious an opportunity it is to glimpse the mind of true artists! And how resonant, attuned, noble, and admirable their philosophy is! Philosophy that does not have to degenerate itself into pitiful rubble of words!

On Saturday morning, the visiting jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel presented a master class to the public, which was like a special lecture. And, let me tell you, it was definitely one of the most impressive and inspiring talk I have ever attended here at U.Va.

The lecture was kind of like a semi-workshop type discussion, where Kurt sits in the front with his guitar, taking questions and answering them with words and melodies. The session continued in a fun, relaxed and intimate mood for about 2 hours.

What Kurt explained and demonstrated with his guitar, from the perspective of jazz theory, I presume, wasn't so outrageously advanced (if it were, we wouldn't have understood what he was talking about). First, he showed us some substitution method with altered chord based on the melodic minor scale whose VIIth note is the root of the dominant. I suppose you can open any jazz theory (Berkeley method) book and find the explanation there, but how valuable it is to hear it in action, from the hands of a musician who really has digested it, has made it his second nature. . .

Then he talked about how he practices. He said that for him the purpose of practice is "to warm up": to align his physicality with the guitar, to attune mind to the kind of music he wants to play. What he said might have been simple, but oh boy, how profound it really is.

Then I asked a question about comping, for that was something I would like to work on especially. He traced the process by which he would approach a new song (when he was a kid, that is): he would start out by taking a tune, play it over and over again until you memorize it, then start finding different paths by which you can approach it. He took the standard "Darn that dream" as an example, and played for a while to demonstrate what kind of thing can be done to the original progression. I'm not even exaggerating: it was like magic, how the music gets transformed, at his will, through his fingers. What a joy it would be to be able to play like that?

But what I think was above all valuable wasn't the taste of jazz theory he imparted, but what he talked about his conception of music, and his passion for it. He emphasized the critical importance of the "singing" element throughout the lecture. For such impulse to sing is truly the beginning of all music. Imagination is another important factor. Always thinking imaginatively, he told us, about what it is that you want to play, what melody, chord, tone, and striving to achieve it, that is what music is for him. By the end of the period I thought I could understand better whence the beautiful melodies that come out of his playing.

There are many other truly stimulating lessons, not just about jazz guitar but about artistic passion in general that could be learned from that short 2 hours. I'm sorry the music department had not, in my opinion, promoted the event very well.

Then at night Kurt was again on stage, as the featured guest guitarist of the winter concert of U.Va. Jazz ensemble. This ensemble is a group of very gifted student musicians whose ambitious and solid performance pleases me always.

In a word: the gig rocked. It was awesome. A series of very original, inspiring tunes (many were compositions of John D'earth, the director) driving the audience, and the ensemble's sound was tight and enjoyable. I was so fortunate, as I was on the previous night, to sit in the very front row, right in front of the legendary guitarist, and witness how true music is being created. I could really here his voice, not just the physical voice (for he sings while he plays), but the melodious voice that is ceaselessly welling inside his spirit.

Oh what a weekend. How so cool. As is the case with most jazz musicians, Kurt was really nice: I was able to talk to him a couple of times and he responded nicely, and he even recognized me at the end of the first set, Saturday night. Ah. This kind of experience drives me more strongly than any other. To where? I'm not quite sure. It's not necessarily music, for me. But I have to do something, and I want to. Recognition that there still remains in my heart something that is capable of burning. An indescribable well of feelings, gushing forth, that one cannot put into words, but can only sing of. . .

taken from Cahier No. 9

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