Kurt Rosenwinkel (Interview): "When we get down to business, we get down deep!"
Updated: May 10, 2021
Kurt Rosenwinkel has been hailed as one of the most influential and creative guitar players in jazz music (and beyond) for a long time now. Rosenwinkel is a stunning composer, player and performer, obviously possessing extraordinarily profound musical knowledge. The guitarist, born in Philadelphia and living in Berlin, has been using the time of the lockdown to share this knowledge. He has been teaching online masterclasses and worked on his long awaited method book. As deep as those teachings go, things don't have to be solemnly serious in their presentation: The guitarist has been promoting them with hilarious video clips and a good sense of humor.
And yes, besides that he has also done a couple of other things. Like writing for Eric Clapton (who is often quoted calling Rosenwinkel a genius), producing other people, working on various upcoming solo albums, recording a fantastic song with the Heartcore Orchestra and running and developing his record label Heartcore Records. You know, as one does in the pandemic.
Markus Brandstetter from hyperlocrian.com spoke to Kurt Rosenwinkel via Zoom.
Kurt, you have been working on something that a lot of your fans and jazz players around the world are eagerly awaiting: A Kurt Rosenwinkel method book. Can you talk a bit about the current state of the project and what it's like working on it?
I started the book quite a long time ago, so people have known about it for a while. I never really had much time to work on it all these years, because I've been touring so much. For the past 15 years I've pretty much been nowhere for more than two weeks at once. Due to the lockdown I had the chance to work on it more, and now it's on my top priorities of things to be finished. It is also really cool to do these masterclasses that I've been doing. That gets me in that world of getting my thoughts down on paper. I've almost been re-writing the book from the perspective of now. So yeah, I've been engaged in it for the last year. It should be done relatively soon. I've been working on a lot of different things, like a complete songbook. That is already 600 pages of work. There's a lot going on.
Is writing such an extensive method book like writing an autobiography in some sense? I imagine you have to dig really deep and go all the way through to the very fundamentals of your musical cosmos.
It's funny because it is like an autobiography. You are sharing your own perspective. It's really easy to write it, because it's just like putting down a memory or a story on paper. The story of your relationship to A minor major 7. When I started writing the book that I did for the last masterclass … I like to write on score paper and I like to write with a pen. I wrote 25 pages and I think I might have made one mistake. It was kind of shocking to me to witness that I'm not making any mistakes, it's just coming out. It's really enjoyable to let it come out and express it in a coherent, cohesive way. I don't walk around with that stuff active in my mind, so at first I think: "Well, I don't really know what to say about that”. But as soon as I start writing, it just keeps going and going. I don't have to stop, I could go on forever. It's been an enjoyable process. Once you start writing and putting your thoughts down, you find out that there's a lot there, things that you might have not been aware of when you were just thinking casually about a subject.
You've been doing hilarious videos for those masterclasses. You flew on a carpet, talking to yourself as a genie, you interviewed yourself in a CNN-like studio. In one video you also made fun of an interview of yours that has become a running gag. Of course I'm talking about the one where a French reporter asked you why you wore hats and then brought out the legendary question: "Do you pretend to play modern jazz?”
(laughs) We had a lot of fun playing around with the video stuff. Since the lockdown happened, we had to get into that whole world, using the green screen, being creative. My fiancé Skylee is really great with that stuff too, so she brought a lot to the table — my label manager Michaela too. We were just messing around, just having a ball and making these videos. Making fun of the hyper marketing aspect that is going on these days, but at the same time using these to hypermarket! We're not taking things too seriously. I think people need to laugh, they need to enjoy letting loose. Even if it's a serious subject like the masterclass. When we get down to business, we get down deep — the classes are superserious, but there's no reason why you can't have fun with stuff. I like the masterclasses. It's people coming together, enjoying the space, having a moment to breathe, having a good time focusing on guitar and music. Hanging out as friends. I like to have personal and friendly relationships with my fans, with the people who follow me, who are relating to what I'm putting out there. I like to be open and easy.
"Do you pretend to play modern jazz?"
You also released a shirt with the question "Do you pretend to play modern jazz". Have you spoken to the lady who interviewed you back then since then, does she know her question has reached legend status?
No, man — but she was great. I think she was having fun as well at the time. I guess it was a bit of performance art on her part. It was a funny moment and we wanted to honor that moment.
Your record label Heartcore Records is turning five this year. Looking back on five years as a label boss and producer.
We've come a long way. We started with nothing. It was just an idea. It was all a surprise to me when it started. A lot of things were changing in my life. One night I was out on the terrace. The moon looked down at me and I was looking at the moon, asking: "What shall I do?" And the moon was like "Start a record company". I was like: "A record company?" "Yeah, a record company" "Really?" "Yeah." I was like: "Okay". That was really how it started. We just started from that idea. I was so fortunate to meet and start working with Michaela. The two of us got this thing off the ground and started it, established this idea and this brand. It has taken off. In five years we've been able to accomplish a lot, I would say. We are really proud of what we have been able to do and proud of the artists that we've been able to give a platform to and to help them make their music. Like Pedro Martins — or Daniel Santiago is just coming out with his album that we're really excited about. We have learnt tons along the way. We were able to put out my album "Caipi", which was the first album we released. We were able to learn and grow so much. Now we have world wide physical distribution, which is something that's really hard to accomplish for a label. Little by little we're expanding our foundation and our parameters. We just like to exemplify an ideal which is encapsulated in the idea of Heartcore: Heartfelt music that is absolutely uncompromising and hardcore from the heart. Believing in the music, that the music will create its own success. That's what we do: We make what we believe is very soulful and creative music. We are having a great time and we are learning how to be more successful at it in terms of financial perspective. Even though it's still a very difficult uphill battle with today's scene. But we do it anyway, that's the point. We do it for the music and feel really good. We're building a family around the world where everybody can be their strongest and their best and feel like they're supported. That's what we're building.
Would it be sufficient to say that the concept of the label is just releasing music that you like, not caring too much about genres?
The concept is the Kabbalah of music. The Kabbalah is an esoteric tradition, a source at which all the traditions meet. It's this esoteric source that's the underpinning of a lot of different religions. The Kabbalah is the essential thing that all these different genres of religions have in common. In musical terms we're the Kabbalah of genres. Every genre is just a particular manifestation of a particular vibration, but at its root all traditions meet at its source. That's where we're coming from. Great music can come from anywhere. And you know what great music is, it just hits you. And yeah, that's subjective but it's a beautiful thing to take part in. Everybody builds their world around them with like-minded, sympathetic vibrations. I'm lucky that I know so many great artists from all over the world from so many different sympathetic vibrations. I'm lucky that I know so many great artists from all over the world from so many different genres and walks of life. What I feel like I'm most blessed with in my life is all the great people that I know, people that are doing so many different, incredible things. I realize that I was in a position to tap into that, make a label and bring all these incredible people together to be a part of this project called Heartcore Records. It's really cool.
Of course being a label boss also implies a role that goes beyond creative work. Have you always been good at that?
Yeah, I've always been a great business man (laughs). It's just that nobody knew it until now! Some members of my family are really surprised, others aren't surprised at all.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, you were on tour with your trio, promoting the record "Angels Around". Besides the things you've already mentioned, what else have you been working on?
We've been working on so many things. We produced Daniel's whole album during lockdown. We're really proud of that album, I can't wait for people to hear it. It's a beautiful and powerful record, great music. I've recorded a lot of solo piano, that's kind of been kicked down the road a couple of times for some other priorities. We're looking to get that out in July this year. A solo piano album where I'm playing mostly my own compositions, some of them old, some new. I've been working on a reissue, remix and remaster of my album "Heartcore” which came out in 2003. I'm remixing it, I have all the original sessions. It also has an orchestral piece on the album that was all MIDI-stuff on the original and now we're getting it played by a full orchestra. The masterclasses have been a lot of work and it was cool to delve into the original subjects. And just basically transforming the studio in a modern lockdown studio. I love adapting. I think that's our greatest strength as human beings. That's why we survived, that's why we're on top of the pyramid. Because we adapt. I feel fortunate that I'm a place where everyone is safe and healthy. I'm just trying to work as hard as possible, be as creative as possible. Make some upgrades to my studio, learn a whole new discipline like movie making. I love that. It's cool to be creative with that. I've enjoyed becoming closer with my audience through the video format. That's been a very positive change. I've been writing a lot, a bunch of songs, songs that nobody has heard. There's a lot in the works, another solo album — an album that arose out of my solo performances with loops and creating songforms on stage spontaneously with keyboard, drum machine and guitar. I did that a lot, but I stopped doing it. I took the songs I created onstage and do an album with that. It will be called "The Knower Abstracts", Michaela will be singing on that. I'm going to do a solo guitar album … there's too much stuff, man. Also another "Caipi" album, "Caipi 2", then a rock album, where I'm singing. A bunch of stuff.
You won't get bored it seems.
Yeah, not at all.
You've mentioned Daniel Santiago's record — which features Eric Clapton. You and Clapton are frequent collaborators. You have played at his Crossroads festival several times, he had a guest spot on your record "Caipi" — and the last time he played in Berlin he invited you on stage to perform with him. I was wondering if you could talk about your relationship a bit.
We have a beautiful relationship. Eric is a good friend, he has really helped us a lot. He has helped me with "Caipi", he has been very supportive of the things we are doing with Heartcore Records. He's such a down to earth guy. We're always in touch, texting each other, sending music back and forth. Occasionally he'll commission a song. He commissioned a song by me to help me out during the lockdown. When Morricone died, he wanted to hear my version of "Laura's Theme"”, he wanted to see what I would do with that tune. It's a way for him to create music while helping his buddy out. He has a great creative spirit. A very kind, generous man. We're seeing what we can do together. We are talking about recording a duo album together. There's s great potential to collaborate. He's interested in what I'm interested in: Fostering creative output from where you can find it.
You have once said that you practise at least six hours a day when you really want to move forward with new aspects of your playing. Did you do that in the lockdown time, did you have an augmented practice routine?
No, I haven't really been getting super deep into the guitar. Basically that's what I've been doing my whole life anyway, so when the lockdown hit I was getting heavy into all the other stuff. Cleaning the house, home improvement, revamping the living room, revamping the studio. I completely gutted the studio and rebuilt it. That's been an amazing process. Producing other people's music and playing a lot of piano. I always long for the piano when I'm out on the road, and when I'm at home, I put the guitar down and you can find me at the piano. I was practising more piano than guitar. But yeah, I've been playing the guitar too: I kind of take it for granted a little bit and I realize that. So when anything can force me to play the guitar, I'm grateful for it. Because then I'm at the guitar and I feel happy there. But a lot of times I won't have the burning desire to play that much—– because I've been constantly playing for the last 35 years. It's been nice to focus on some other things.
Find more about Kurt Rosenwinkel on his official website.
And make sure to visit the website of his record company Heartcore Records.