Straight to the Heartcore

Almost a year ago, Verve finally issued Heartcore, a long-delayed album by guitarist-composer Kurt Rosenwinkel. Produced in a Brooklyn home studio, the disc entered the jazz realm like a shard of errant kryptonite: luminous, otherworldly and possessed of mysterious powers. The album was a product of years of distillation, many months of studio manipulations and untold megabytes of borrowed sounds. Reviewing it in JazzTimes, I wrote: "Rosenwinkel has crafted an album that heeds a deeply intimate jazz impulse yet shimmers with the procedural gloss of pop." But Heartcore didn't make it to many year-end roundups, and the album quietly drifted into the ether from which it came. At number 44, it barely squeaked onto JazzTimes' Top 50 Critics' Picks.

Rarely in the jazz media does an album receive a backward glance, but Heartcore deserves reconsideration. Having lived with the music for a year, I've found its sonic landscape more beguiling, and its atmosphere less recondite, than I initially perceived. The favorable review I wrote now strikes me as excessively cool. I'm inclined to agree with Rosenwinkel's contemporary Brad Mehldau, who in an e-mail exchange observes that Heartcore "draws me in emotionally more and more; it has that haunting quality, a quality like you experience on Miles' In a Silent Way. It seeps into you and then when you think of it later, you pine for it, like trying to recapture a dream that you almost remember."

Since the beginning of his career as a leader, Rosenwinkel has pushed beyond the strictures of modern jazz toward a music that inhabits contemporary space. In the context of his unusually cohesive ensemble-with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Ben Street-Rosenwinkel has gradually defined a world of sound expansive in tonal range but attenuated to minute gradations in color and mood. His discography bears traces of this as early as 2000's The Enemies of Energy-in the subliminally catchy refrain of "Number Ten" and the sun-warped, hallucinatory midpoint of "Point of View" (which is actually a Scott Kinsey tune). It lurks within 2001's The Next Step, too, in the far recesses of an echoing innuendo called "Use of Light." But with Heartcore, the voices in Rosenwinkel's head coalesced into a chorus. Reaching beyond the borders of any recognizable technique, the guitarist invented a new one. It's not the "future of jazz" but a personal evocation that just happens to evoke the spirit of our age.

The tensions at the heart of Heartcore describe a contest between the organic and the synthetic-or more simply, between man and machine. The title track finds guitar and tenor saxophone riding a sinuous melody in unison over electronic march time. But the rhythm track isn't programmed; Rosenwinkel plays it on sample-rigged pads. Meanwhile, Ballard's cymbals and snare produce pulsating time from deep within the mix, fazing in and out of sync with the synth-drums. Rosenwinkel's eerie but unquestionably human falsetto adds another texture that pierces the fog. All told, the song is an elaborately layered construction with an effect best described as Kubrick-like: dark and disquieting but ripe with sensuous allure.

On a record release gig last August at Joe's Pub in New York City, Rosenwinkel's ensemble proved that the diaphanous tune could inhabit real space in real time. All of the songs, in fact, came across convincingly in concert, despite the fact that they'd been recorded piecemeal, sometimes over the course of months. Leave it to an intensely creative artist to turn the technical limitations of a home studio into a compositional device. Practically speaking, the songs on Heartcore were as influenced by Rosenwinkel's resourceful solutions as by his unrelenting vision.

Despite the cut-and-paste processes that enabled the recording, Heartcore relies first and foremost on the finely honed interaction of Rosenwinkel's ensemble. A unit for the better part of a decade, the quartet works with efficient grace here, bringing a Brazilian undercurrent to "dcba//>>" and haunting deliberation to "All the Way to Rajasthan." The polyrhythmic shuffle on "Blue Line" ranks among their most appealingly inventive performances ever, and features a solo transition from Rosenwinkel to Turner that never loses its immediacy. The rapport between these frontline partners is still in many ways the crux of the band, and it's a small miracle that they continue to turn new corners.

Too idiosyncratic to fulfill the rules of any genre, Heartcore dwells alone in its place, and the very properties that distinguish it may have fueled its obscurity. There were also more mundane factors at work, beginning with an ever-receding release date that was the combined result of a tinkering Rosenwinkel and a cost-cutting Verve. Thankfully, such considerations have no bearing on the sound of the album today. It's just out there waiting to be heard.

Originally published in July/August 2004

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