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Renee Rosnes Reaching for a New Level

The pianist's already distinguished career is becoming ever deeper, marked by compositional breakthroughs and exciting collaborative opportunities

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Renee Rosnes (photo: Shervin Lainez)
Renee Rosnes (photo: Shervin Lainez)

If you heed her peers and colleagues’ opinions, Renee Rosnes is the jazz equivalent of a “five-tool” baseball player: that rare athlete who possesses the technical skills and psychological fortitude to excel in all phases of the game over a sustained duration. In lieu of hitting, throwing, fielding, and running, Vancouver-born Rosnes, 59, has made her mark as an instrumentalist, improviser, composer, arranger, and bandleader, accumulating a CV as distinguished as any pianist of her generation since she moved to New York in 1986. 

During her first 15 years in New York, Rosnes established impeccable bona fides as both side musician and leader. She sound- and beat-sculpted on various keyboards with Wayne Shorter and M-BASE influencers Greg Osby and Gary Thomas. She was an authoritative hardcore jazz practitioner in long-haul relationships with Joe Henderson, J.J. Johnson, James Moody, Bobby Hutcherson, and Lewis Nash, as well as the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars. She stamped her elegant, orchestral conception of the piano trio on three sparkling standards albums with her then-husband Billy Drummond and bass maestro Ray Drummond (no relation). And she composed and arranged for her own bands, documenting her output on eight albums—each with its own distinctive character—for Blue Note, beginning with an eponymous 1988 date to which Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Branford Marsalis contributed.

On Rosnes’ 20th and latest date as a leader, Kinds of Love (Smoke Sessions), conceived and composed at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, her apex-of-the-pyramid personnel—Chris Potter, saxophones and winds; Christian McBride, bass; Carl Allen, drums; Rogério Boccato, percussion—jump in the deep end of the pool on nine bespoke originals. It’s Rosnes’ third outing for the label, following 2018’s Beloved of the Sky (Potter, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Lenny White) and 2016’s Written on the Rocks (Nelson, Washington, saxophonist Steve Wilson, and drummer Bill Stewart), which feature another 16 Rosnes compositions.

“Smoke Sessions has given me the liberty to present myself in the fullest way possible artistically,” Rosnes says by phone from the New Jersey home she shares with husband Bill Charlap. “The pandemic gave me an unusual amount of time to work and kept me creatively motivated. I’m normally so busy getting on airplanes that I often lamented not having solitude to work, and then this gift presented itself. I felt fulfilled working day to day, week to week, imagining this new album, inspired by the musicians who would be recording with me. I trusted that the music would soar, and the musicians I’d assembled would impart more depth and nuance than I even imagined. The key is to always allow people to be themselves.

“I take sources of inspiration from all parts of my life,” Rosnes continues. She keeps a notebook with ideas spawned when she comes across something intriguing: a 20th-century work by Lutoslawski or an 18th-century sarabande from one of Bach’s English Suites; a Lester Young phrase from a 1957 solo on “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”; a fragment from a composition by Chick Corea or Thelonious Monk; birdsong; the image of a landscape, synesthetically refracted into the language of notes and tones. “I analyze why it appealed to me, then explore whether I can use any part of it, whether it’s a harmonic progression or a rhythmic concept. There’s no end of raw material to work with.”

“I was knocked out by her writing, which was always strong,” says Potter, who first recorded with Rosnes on Ancestors (1995) with Nicholas Payton, Peter Washington, and Al Foster. “But these new tunes felt like another level; the way she extends her language, the framework she invents—it keeps blossoming and blossoming. It’s the specificity of the voicings, how she incorporates improvisation into the composition. You expect things like this in a classical piece, where everything is written out, but you don’t always encounter it in jazz. Yet, it still feels natural; when you’re blowing, you feel you can play and be yourself.”

Renee Rosnes playing with Artemis at Newport in 2018 (photo: Alan Nahigian)
Renee Rosnes playing with Artemis at Newport in 2018 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Expanding the Escapade

Christian McBride first recorded with Rosnes on As We Are Now, a 1997 quartet with Potter and Jack DeJohnette, a few years after touring with her in J.J. Johnson’s group. “I always look forward to playing Renee’s music because it’s highly advanced, with unusual intervallic leaps and harmonic progressions, and it’s also memorable and singable,” he says. “Her melodies are super-strong—there are many smart, highly intellectual composers whose work is fun to analyze, but you don’t necessarily walk away humming it. I think she’s been extremely successful at channeling the storytelling Wayne Shorter does in his long-form writing into a more traditional acoustic jazz texture. It’s an escapade.” 

“Renee is a natural composer, who instinctually knows so much technically about the building blocks of music that she can lead with the heart and end up with something that is 100 percent structurally sound,” Charlap says. That assessment fits Rosnes’ contributions to Ice on the Hudson (SMK), a 2018 cabaret-jazz project on which her elegant, focused responses to David Hajdu’s well-turned lyrics complement the voices of René Marie, Janis Siegel, Karen Oberlin, and Darius de Haas. 

“When we were hatching ideas for songs, Renee was completely open-minded, as long as the idea is grounded in authentic human feeling,” Hajdu testifies in an email. “We’ve written about missing a loved one so much that you’re willing to die to be reunited; about diners and pie; about the Gabriola Passage, a natural formation in Northwestern Canada that Renee finds profoundly inspiring. No theme is too daunting, too emotionally complicated, too serious, or too silly for her. None of the songs sounds like any of the others, and yet they are all distinctly the work of the same musical intelligence.”

“Open-minded” also describes Rosnes’ contributions to the eponymous 2020 Blue Note release by Artemis, the all-female collective that she founded in 2016 and serves as music director: the sprawling, Nino Rota-ish theme of “Big Top”; the minimalist, Alec Wilder-ish framing of Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice on “If It’s Magic” and “Cry, Buttercup, Cry”; and the funky camel-walk lope that propels her arrangement of Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder.” In a sense, her involvement with Artemis parallels her earlier work with the SFJAZZ Collective, to which Rosnes contributed 11 compositions and arrangements from its inception in 2004 until 2009. That experience, Rosnes says, showed her “it was possible to have a band of leaders where egos don’t get in the way, to create great music with strong personalities who encompass many viewpoints.”

Allison Miller, Artemis’ drummer, notes Rosnes’ receptivity “to the various subgenres each musician brought to the band,” how “she produced the record in a way that made all these different-sounding compositions fit together as a single body of work. 

“Like all my favorite musicians, Renee is ever-evolving,” Miller says. “She has a beautiful combination of organization and creativity, which I think woman bandleaders especially need to have. She has this ability to herd us all together—which isn’t easy, because we each have big opinions and want to give everyone else advice. But at this point in her career, she very humbly and kindly demands respect. I hold her on a pedestal.”

Hanging with Artemis—clockwise from top left: Noriko Ueda, Rosnes, Ingrid Jensen, Anat Cohen, Allison Miller, and Melissa Aldana
Hanging with Artemis—clockwise from top left: Noriko Ueda, Rosnes, Ingrid Jensen, Anat Cohen, Allison Miller, and Melissa Aldana

All Boxes Checked

Although Rosnes now devotes the preponderance of her time to bandleading and collaborative projects, she continues to work as a sideperson with Ron Carter, her steady employer since 2011—when, at Kenny Barron’s recommendation, he brought her into his quartet.

“It’s been extraordinary to create music with Ron on his terms night after night, at that high level of consistency,” says Rosnes, who does precisely that on Live in Stockholm, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (In and Out). “I love his spontaneous arrangements, the curveballs he throws at me when he’s experimenting or exploring with the harmony or the rhythm. There’s a lot of trust between us, which contributes to the feeling of liberty and freedom within the music.”

“At this point in her career, she very humbly and kindly demands respect. I hold her on a pedestal.”—Allison Miller

With deliberate precision, Carter enumerates the sources of his trust. “I need a piano player who reads the music I write,” he begins. The job description continues: “the ability to transcribe songs if I need them right away”; “when I say a little faster or a little slower, they don’t say ‘why?’ or, if I ask them, they say ‘That’s too fast or too slow’ or ‘Can I suggest something?’”; “trusts my downbeat”; “trusts my notes as good notes to play in a chord—it’s their job to try to find how they can make that fit into their scheme”; “has a real sensitivity about the piano volume and knows how to use the pedals”; “is a half-hour early for all the gigs”; “wants to be in the band.”

He pauses, then, with formality, references Rosnes’ given forename. “Irene fits all those boxes I just checked off. When we see each other after a long layoff, we hug because we miss each other’s importance to the music of our life.”

Both Carter’s encomium and Barron’s initial cosignature highlight Rosnes’ stature as a “keeper of the flame,” grounded in the aesthetic imperatives that prevailed among the masters of swing with whom she played and to whom she listened closely after arriving in New York. She frequently attended sets at Bradley’s, the Greenwich Village piano saloon, by rotation regulars like Barron and Cedar Walton, both frequent Carter collaborators during the ’80s and ’90s, as well as Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Walter Davis, John Hicks, and Richie Beirach (to name a few).

“It was such an education, to hear this level of mastery any given night of the week, and it had a major impact on the development of my playing,” Rosnes says. “Obviously that particular scene is not possible anymore—at least with that many artists and with that frequency; young musicians aren’t able to have that experience because it simply doesn’t exist.”

“Renee knows how to put a certain English on the ball,” Potter says, describing how Rosnes incorporates those experiences in her pianism. “It’s not just the notes, it’s the velocity and the phrasing; it’s the real language, not a sequenced version of that language. There’s all this pianistic subtlety that maybe came down through folks like Wynton Kelly, to whom she’s obviously paid very close attention. She combines that with classical training, so she knows how to make the piano ring, make certain notes jump out—make it swing. It’s jazz piano.”

“I want to avoid husbandly hyperbole,” Charlap qualifies, before analyzing Rosnes’ artistry. “She’s a magnificent accompanist and listener, so seamless and correct within a rhythm section, weaving a carpet for the soloists and the rest of the band,” he says. “In her quiet nature, sometimes she’ll play a solo with so much fire and so vital that it sometimes feels like a tidal wave emotionally. She’s a great virtuoso pianist, a major soloist with an incredibly beautiful design to her melodic line, unique to her. But she’s got this other thing, which is some sort of gift from above—or from somewhere: Renee can hear anything. If you drop a needle on a record, and it’s Stravinsky or Art Tatum or just about anything, she knows every single note instantaneously. But that doesn’t teach you taste. One can play something that is technically correct and yet not really part of the language. It doesn’t have to be something that’s been done, but it must build on something that has existed. And she has virtuoso taste.” 

“When I came to New York, Mulgrew Miller for me was the reigning champ of New York—the next step after Kenny Barron,” McBride says of the playing field he stepped into in 1989. “I think that way of Renee. She can play with anyone in any style, any situation, make it work on that music’s terms, and still maintain her individuality. That, to me, is a true genius.

Renee Rosnes (photo: Shervin Lainez)
Renee Rosnes (photo: Shervin Lainez)

Out of One, Many

Until she assembled Artemis in March 2016, Rosnes, in both side musician and leader roles, was almost always the only woman on the bandstand. “I learned a long time ago that music transcends gender,” she says. Perhaps as a survival mechanism, she has trained herself to shrug off “the many slights that women instrumentalists often face” in all aspects of their career. But she mentions a particularly troubling encounter last summer when she arrived at a New York club, left unidentified, to perform the fourth night of a week-long run.

“As I approached the entrance, I was stopped by the doorman, who obviously didn’t recognize me,” Rosnes says. “That’s not entirely unusual and doesn’t bother me. He said, ‘Excuse me, but do you have a ticket?’ I replied, ‘No, because I’m playing in the band.’ He took a step back, eyed me, and sarcastically said, ‘Oh … really?’ After a few seconds went by, he said, ‘What do you play? Cards? Roulette?’ I just stood there and looked at him in disbelief. I knew I had options, but I was not interested in getting riled up before a gig. At that moment, the manager just inside the door noticed something was amiss, poked his head out, and admonished the doorman for not letting me through. I made a conscious decision not to allow that experience take me out of my zone nor affect my performance that night—but it sure feels disappointing when those things happen.”

“When I was traveling with Renee, she always radiated that she felt comfortable with who she is,” Potter says. “That got expressed both musically and also the way that she dealt with promoters and everything else. I’m sure lots of stuff got thrown at her that doesn’t happen to the men. But she always seemed very sure of herself. The same as all musicians, she was always looking to make her music at the highest level it could possibly be. I don’t remember any situations where I felt she was being disrespected, and I can’t actually imagine her putting up with it, even though she’s very nice and Canadian and everything like that. But it might be she was so good at it that I didn’t even see the struggles she faced.”

“The doorman said, ‘Excuse me, but do you have a ticket?’ I replied, ‘No, because I’m playing in the band.’ He took a step back, eyed me, and sarcastically said, ‘Oh … really?’”

Without diving too deeply into the thickets of dime-store psychology, one could speculate that Rosnes’ firm belief in the innate musical gifts she displayed from early childhood have allowed her to always know her worth, immunizing her spirit against the viruses of misogyny, harassment, and institutional sexism and allowing her to bring a clear-headed can-do attitude to any musical situation she’s encountered. “I didn’t have any one-on-one mentors, male or female, who took me under their wing after I came to New York,” she notes. “My mentors became the people I worked with, merely by the fact that they hired me and I got to make music with them and learn from them every night.” 

“Renee is definitely a mentor to me,” Miller says. Indeed, it’s increasingly evident to Rosnes that she is (and has been for some time) a mentor to several generations of younger female musicians, as she and her Artemis bandmates were told at several concert engagements not long before our conversation. 

“People tell us we’ve had a great impact, or we see on social media that we’ve moved or encouraged someone, that it’s helping in their journey or to make decisions about what’s possible,” Rosnes says. “I hadn’t given it much thought, but now I see it means something greater than I’d imagined.

“As each year goes by, I see more young female musicians who play at a high level on all the instruments. You can tell how dedicated they are and how well they play; you just know they’ll be making a name for themselves—and rightly so.”

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.