When Kurt Rosenwinkel finished his intense single set, a contingent of young guitarists gathered anxiously to pay homage to the masterclass in fluency, fretwork and tonal manipulation he had just delivered. It was an odd sight in the hard-bitten environment of Ronnie Scott’s, which is more used to a knowing nod or a swift handshake.
The Philadelphia-born Rosenwinkel has been extending the frontiers of jazz guitar for more than a decade. His trenchant individualism is based on state-of-the-art gadgetry, dense thickets of harmony and an encyclopedic knowledge of chord shapes and harmonic variations. At times, his twist-and-turn compositions were a tough call even for a touring quartet made up of featured pianist Aaron Parks and Branford Marsalis’s current rhythm section.
Rosenwinkel, though, leads from the front, and balances complexity with a sensuous grasp of rhythm and tone. The set began with a steamy mambo from drummer Justin Faulkner and the encore fused Motown rhythms with a dirty-toned mid-range guitar. There were climactic pedal points and solo showcases to ease tension and the guitarist’s gadgetry was used to embellish resonance rather than to substitute for it.
All the compositions were Rosenwinkel originals and, as the set progressed, they grew in complexity. The opening mambo segued seamlessly into a mid-tempo waltz – Parks’ romantic vision a melodic contrast – and then the leader introduced the single ballad with an extravaganza of angular arpeggios and flamenco warmth. When the band finally joined, they coped with the convoluted structure and spacious timing well enough, but lost energy.
A press roll restored purpose, hi-hat delivered urgency and the band shifted gear, fully focused on negotiating the changes in tempo, the shifts of key and the myriad musical quirks still to come. Highlights included the nagging urgency of Eric Revis’s bass on “Brooklyn Sometimes” and a deep-toned, end-in-a-whisper drum solo from Faulkner, though it is Rosenwinkel’s extraordinary control that lingers in the memory.