Barely 20 years old when he dropped out of Berklee College of Music to tour with vibraphonist Gary Burton, Kurt Rosenwinkel took over a guitar chair known as a launching pad for some of jazz's most influential guitarists, including Larry Cor-yell and Pat Metheny.
Some two decades later, Rosenwinkel has lived up to the promise of Burton's anointment, and now he's the one who's putting a stamp on jazz's most promising young musicians. As part of a rare West Coast tour, he performs Monday at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz and Wednesday at Yoshi's-San Francisco with his New Quartet, featuring pianist Aaron Parks, drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Eric Revis (best known for his ongoing 15-year tenure with Branford Marsalis).
"Eric is an incredible bassist with such a huge, deeply soulful, melodic sound, and we go way back to when I came to New York in the mid-1990s," says Rosenwinkel, 42. "I started working with Aaron and Rodney in 2005, when they were both playing in Terence Blanchard's band. The thing about Aaron is he's super intuitive. He's rhythmically very precise but natural and organic in his flow."
A prodigy who enrolled at the University of Washington at 14 and moved to New York City two years later to study at the Manhattan School of Music, Parks studied Rosenwinkel's early albums as he released them. When 2001's "The Next Step" came out, a quartet session on Verve featuring Santa Cruz-raised drummer Jeff Ballard, "everybody was listening to it at school," says Parks, 29, who last performed in the Bay Area with the collective quartet James Farm.
"There were so many elements that just felt really fresh, felt like its own self-contained world with its own logic and his own harmonic language, while not abandoning swing. I wore that record out, me and a bunch of my friends at school."
Since his major label debut in 2000, "The Enemies of Energy" (Verve), Rosenwinkel has designed most of his music with a saxophonist in mind. He's worked most closely with the brilliant, cool-toned tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, though Joshua Redman has also played an important role in his music.
'Lead melodic voice'
Last year Rosenwinkel released the two-disc album "Star of Jupiter" (Wommusic), a quartet session featuring drummer Justin Faulkner, Revis, and Parks on piano and various keyboards. As his first hornless recording focusing on his own music, Rosenwinkel "consciously wanted to move into a band configuration where I'm the lead melodic voice. I really enjoy playing melodies when there's a harmonic instrument supporting the guitar."
Speaking by phone from Germany, where he settled six years ago to teach at Jazz Institute Berlin, Rosenwinkel discussed the new band as the next step in a self-conscious evolution "involving all the elements of being the melodic voice, the teller of the story. But the guitar isn't naturally legato, so you have to develop a lot to get that arching melodic sound."
Forging a personal harmonic vocabulary within a lyrically charged framework is a lifetime accomplishment for a jazz musician. While utterly contemporary, Rosenwinkel's sound gives evidence of his own deep listening to subtle guitar practitioners unfamiliar to most of his peers. It's not just that he's checked out players like seven-string ace George Van Eps and the elegant Johnny Smith, prolific studio musicians who started recording in the '30s. He absorbed their sophisticated chordal language and made it part of his own sweeping harmonic vernacular.
Lyrics on horizon?
"I love both of those guys," says Rosenwinkel, 42. "There's surely some of them in my playing. I'm very much a harmonic kind of player, and chordal work is really a strong element in my playing. I just love harmony and cadence and voice leading. That may be why you hear those influences more in my work than in some other players."
Rosenwinkel's tunes are so darn lyrical that he's actually written lyrics for many of them, though he's never performed those compositions as songs. The melodies seem to pour out of him, an involuntary act in which he "just sort of discovers things that are there, and I know how to work as a composer to bring them out," he said. "Sometimes I write songs and realize they need lyrics, but it's a very painstaking process. I tried to have other people write them, but they're so personal."
Rosenwinkel hints that there's an album featuring his lyrics on the horizon, but in the meantime he'll be doing all his singing through his guitar.