It's one of the music industry's quiet ironies that jazz, arguably the most free flowing of genres, often calcifies in a studio setting. Despite many plausible explanations for this condition, the biggest factors are simply money and its coefficient, time. A pop album can unfold over the course of months-like a summer romance, with its gradual epiphanies and shifts of mood. By contrast, the typical jazz date is a one-night stand: quick and no-nonsense, a casual affair. And while jazz history brims with artists who've delivered perfect on-the-spot performances, this situation can often limit the capricious powers of the muse. As Verve Music Group A&R chief Jason Olaine recently observed: "Jazz doesn't have the kind of budgets that pop records have, so we're forced to go in and play what we've rehearsed, or music that's written. There's actually less improvisation from a certain standpoint, in terms of the collaborative process, than there is with more commercial music."
Olaine served as executive producer of Heartcore, Kurt Rosenwinkel's third recording for Verve. But the album was emphatically produced by the guitarist himself, in the cluttered comfort of his home studio in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. Along with the rapper Q-Tip, who receives a coproducer credit but otherwise stays behind the scenes, Rosenwinkel has crafted an album that heeds a deeply intimate jazz impulse yet shimmers with the procedural gloss of pop. One that gets the sense that it's the record he's been waiting to make for some time.
As on his previous two releases, The Enemies of Energy and The Next Step, Rosenwinkel built Heartcore around the sound of a working group, consisting of tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Ben Street. Their telepathic rapport comes across loud and clear even when (as is often the case here) their parts were recorded at different times, in successive layers. What distinguishes this disc from the others are the additional elements, those that wouldn't have been conceivable outside the studio. The title track provides a perfect example: Ballard's pulsating acoustic drums and cymbals lurk almost subconsciously beneath a synthesized rhythm track (which Rosenwinkel triggered in real time, using sounds borrowed from Q-Tip's digital arsenal). After further factoring in a radiating keyboard track, a synth bass and a guitar-shadowing vocal line, the song achieves a haunting and otherworldly aura.
That brand of disquieting beauty serves as a unifying thread on Heartcore, weaving throughout a program that's slippery and compositionally diverse. Rosenwinkel appears far less interested in virtuosics than atmospherics, although that's not to say that he eschews the dazzling fluidity that has become a kind of trademark. ("Blue Line" is a particular highlight, eliciting curvaceous, harmonically advanced solos from both Rosenwinkel and Turner.) Guest appearances are similarly understated, with Ethan Iverson and Mariano Gil lending keyboard and flute respectively to two tracks. Andrew D'Angelo's fervent bass clarinet on "Your Vision" strikes an especially human invocation.
Heartcore will have its critics, and they'll fall into one of two camps: those who revile Rosenwinkel's electronic "corruption" of jazz and those who think his concoction is merely sonic wallpaper. What both sides will have missed is the luminous melodic allure of the album, along with its subtle intricacies of texture. The disc has its shortcomings-Rosenwinkel is a less than facile keyboardist, and his unintelligible alien mutterings on "Dream/Memory?" may be pushing abstraction a bit far-but there's no arguing with the utter sincerity of its various inventions. Somewhat uneven but almost ceaselessly fascinating, the album reveals not only Rosenwinkel's purest motivations but also the possibilities of his alternative approach.