Kurt Rosenwinkle’s Guitar Brings a Freshness to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

The evening of exceptional music further signals the orchestra’s ongoing push — not only into the past and present of jazz, but the future as well.

James Burns Media
Kurt Rosenwinkle on guitar with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. James Burns Media

Kurt Rosenwinkle with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
Through March 23
Jazz at Lincoln Center, Rose Hall

Over the past few months, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center have presented three programs of newly commissioned music by composers of varying connection to the organization. In October, there was “Musings of Cosmic Stuff” by Sherman Irby, a regular member of the reed section. In February, we heard “Usonian Structures” by Andy Farber, a composer, arranger, saxophonist, and bandleader with close ties to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

This weekend, the Jalco is teaming with Kurt Rosenwinkle, a composer and guitarist who has performed with the orchestra only once before.

This is a healthy thing. Not that the Jalco was in any danger of growing stale or repeating itself, but Mr. Rosenwinkle’s playing and his music bring a new freshness to the mix — a composer from outside of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra experience, and, indeed, an instrument that has been very rarely featured in jazz big bands in general. 

If you were to play me some of Friday night’s music on a blindfold test, I might not have recognized it was the Jalco, though the playing of certain key soloists — especially Messrs. Marsalis and Irby and the trombonist Vincent Gardner — is always unmistakable.

Upon entering the house in his sporty black beret, Mr. Rosenwinkle remarked that the experience was a new one for him as well; he’d never been asked to prepare a program of his own original music for a 16-piece jazz orchestra.

Many of his artistic decisions were likewise unexpected: most big band jazz — or even jazz in general — is fast, uptempo numbers, leavened only by the occasional slower ballad. This weekend’s concert features just as much down-tempo music; he even opened with a tranquil movement as part of a short suite titled “Chico and Harriet: Love Beyond the Worlds.”  

The first mini-movement was soft and serene, but with a distinct melody, expressed by Mr. Rosenwinkle over the orchestra, in which each line seemed to be in two parts — a phrase, followed by a brief pause, and then a corresponding phrase. The second movement, like much of the evening, was artistically aligned with the best of 1960s big band jazz, such as that by Oliver Nelson and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra; this was an aggressive theme in a jazz waltz template. The third and final movement  — the entire piece was roughly 15 minutes — was slow and bluesy.

The second piece, “Homage á Mitch,” dedicated to Mitch Borden, the founder of Smalls Jazz Club on Sheridan Square in the West Village, a locus of much worthwhile new musical activity in this century. It started out as a ballad, spotlighting the trombone section, with Eliot Mason and Chris Crenshaw in addition to Mr. Gardner, and grew more aggressive as it progressed.

The first set concluded with “Filters,“ a fast and staccato, boppish variation on the standard “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” though I confess I might not have recognized that had not Mr. Gardner mentioned it in the pre-concert talk. This, like many pieces Friday night, stressed unusual combinations in the reed section, including alto saxophonist Alexa Tarrantino on piccolo. Mr. Rosenwinkle stretched out over the rhythm section, as did big-toned tenor saxophonist Abdias Armentos. It ended with a thunderous drum solo by Obed Calvaire. 

The second act began with  “Sagrada Familia (Continuum),” another piece that couldn’t be comfortably categorized as a ballad or a swinger, but seemed to be both at the same time. As the title implies, Mr. Rosenwinkle announced that it was inspired by the ideals of family and continuity. It could have been one of the better late 1960s TV detective or spy show themes, growing increasingly intense.

“Path of the Heart,” an out-and-out ballad, began with pianist Joe Block, probably the orchestra’s youngest member and substituting for an ailing Dan Nimmer, plinking a slow series of high A’s at the top of the keyboard as the orchestra came in around him. Like nearly all the pieces of the evening, it didn’t feel like a repeating series of choruses — the way so much jazz structure usually does — but rather a through-composed work.  Mr. Rosenwinkle’s music is an ideal choice for the orchestra in that he has a true sense of narrative. 

The evening wound up with a piece that Mr. Rosenwinkle originally recorded as “Hope and Fear” on his 1996 album “The Enemies of Energy,” but, not wanting to be a downer, has retitled “Knowledge and Wisdom” in its orchestral incarnation. It started in a swirling, kaleidoscopic pattern, and eventually settled into a different groove entirely, fast and funky.

Throughout, Rose Hall’s keen acoustics were especially appreciated; at times, the electric guitar stood distinct from the orchestra, and at others they blended seamlessly. It was gratifying to see many younger people in the house as well as the orchestra; in addition to Joe Block, virtually all the members of the reed section were born well after the orchestra itself. 

It was an evening of exceptional music, and further signaled the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s ongoing push — not only into the past and present of jazz, but the future as well.


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