Word of Mouth

For someone who started as a rock listener, standards were a hurdle in making the transition to jazz. For one thing, understanding standards requires becoming familiar with pre-rock song forms. For another, rock (at least from around 1965 onward) insists on originality, while the art of dealing with standards is the art of taking a statement many others have uttered and making it one’s own.

Kurt Rosenwinkel has pulled off the demanding task of establishing himself as a compositional voice in jazz, but on Reflections he deals with standards (as well as a piece of his from the ’90s). The opening title piece by Thelonious Monk has an indelible melody. Rosenwinkel slips in a few embellishments on the theme, and by the middle of the nine-minute track he has let loose with a half-chorus of burning single notes. However, he makes the transition away from the melody, and back to it, smooth enough that it takes a close listen to notice.

There are echoes of old masters (Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery) and newer influences (Metheny, Holdsworth) in Rosenwinkel’s guitar work, but the brittle, echoed sound and the vocabulary of rapid phrases are his own. Bassist Eric Revis and drummer Eric Harland provide a calm, rarely flashy backdrop, although Revis also deals well with the challenge of creating melodic solos while Harland finds the appropriate moments for punctuation. The one track that leaves me skeptical is Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” outfitted with a mild go-go beat, which is an intriguing take but doesn’t improve on Miles Davis’s unforgettable original. However, the other Shorter piece, “Ana Maria,” has a more successful groove substitution, removing the 70’s jazz-rock flavors of the original and creating a mid-tempo samba.

Those two tracks aside, Rosenwinkel’s trio concerns itself primarily with staying true to a great set of melodies. The musicianship of Reflections offers many lessons, but it will also stand as one of the most listenable discs to come out of 2009.