Interview with Kurt Rosenwinkel – “one of the most influential musicians of his generation!”

Today’s interview is with Kurt Rosenwinkel, a musician hailed as “one of the most influential and strikingly original guitarist-composers of his generation.”

American guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel has been at the forefront of the jazz and contemporary music scene for more than 2 decades and shares some great insight on building a career, touring and making beautiful music.

[We did this original interview in 2017 as Kurt was launching his own label – Heartcore Records – so we touch on that. However, most of the questions are focused on his career of 20+ years so his advice & insight is still totally relevant today. We’ve updated the bottom of this page with his latest news, including a video of the upcoming trio release Angels Around in May 2020 and this link to a review of his 2022 release The Chopin Project]

As someone who toured early on with legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton, caught the tail-end of major label jazz promotion when he signed to Verve and, eventually, relocated to Europe, Kurt Rosenwinkel has seen first hand how the industry has changed.

The full interview is below but, first, a couple of quick personal highlights to take away from his answers:

  • There’s no substitute for practical experience when it comes to growing as a jazz musician. Get out there and PLAY.
  • “Go deep into the music, have faith and work as hard as you can!
  • How a weekly residency (in this case, at Smalls in New York) can lead to international recognition and touring

Anyway, here’s the full interview…

You left Berklee before the end of the course to tour with Gary Burton. How does formal jazz education compare with getting out there and gigging with the greats an older generation?

There’s no substitute for experience. You gotta get out there, whether it’s with older cats or your friends or anything really, I would do as much as possible.

Do awards – such as the one you received from the National Endowment of the Arts – play an important role in building a career, in terms of wider public recognition?

They certainly can, and it’s so important to give musicians some support. Its not easy to find your way as an artist and every little bit of support and encouragement can really make a big difference, even just for the persons resolve to stay focused and move forward.

With such a mass of talent coming out of the music colleges each year, what’s the best piece of advice you’d give these guys for building an international career?

Yes there are many brilliant young musicians I have met who came through the school.

I would say to them to just stay focused, go deep into the music, have faith and work as hard as you can! You must be continually finding yourself, because it is always changing.

It may not seem like it but that is practical advice.

What was the main motivation for starting your own record label, versus releasing on one of the majors?

When I left my previous label I was in touch with some major labels and I could have gone that route, but I realized it would be more interesting to start my own label.

I’m at a point in my career where I would rather develop my own brand and create a business that can embody my vision of music and aesthetics, and it is a deeper mission to create strong beacons of light in the world.

What’s the concept for the new label and are there already next releases scheduled?

The concept of Heartcore Records is right there in the name: to recognize and support great music, regardless of genre, that is hardcore and from the heart: Heartcore.

It expresses what my attitude and approach to life is and so it was a natural choice for the name of my record company. The things I am doing are about much more than music itself, it is about working in this life to do good and create positivity and hope, to help humanity in our struggle to grow and become what we ultimately will.

We are starting out slowly and carefully, but I envision a label with many artists, there’s a lot I want to do. We are getting our sea legs with Caipi and are working on the next releases as well.

The second release will be an incredible album by Pedro Martins, a young brilliant musician from Brazil.

As a gigging musician, how does the scene in Europe compare with that in the US? What advice would you give young American musicians who want to break into Europe?

The jazz scene is worldwide, and when your music has something unique and is of the highest level, those doors will open for you, hopefully, with a lot of dedication, inspiration, perspiration, persistence, all of those things you know…

Did the marketing budgets and reputations of major labels who were releasing jazz in the 90’s and 2000’s speed up careers like yours in terms of how many promoters were interested and how many fans were coming to gigs?

Yes, for sure. When I signed to Verve it gave me a certain cachet as an artist and it enabled me to get the ball rolling with some important aspects of having a career.

I was able to attract a manager and a booking agent and started to get out there more internationally.

I was one of the last ones to get a little of that kind of major label promotion. It’s definitely a changed world as far as that goes, but thats kind of what I imagine Heartcore can do – create a brand that people will always know is producing high quality music and will be a place that people can discover someone new and thus help a young artist embark on a career in music.

How involved with the actual booking of gigs have you been during your career?

In the beginning, I booked my own gigs; I got the phone numbers of all the clubs in Spain and called them all up asking for a gig even though they didn’t know me, and ended up with some kind of “tour” for me, Ben Street and Jeff Ballard.

It kind of worked too!

This past year after I parted ways with my former manager I booked a few tours. Its not that hard, just takes a lot of time and determination and to have a lot of details in your head at the same time and hopefully don’t screw anything up!

Will you be releasing music of other artists on the label and, if so, will you be involved creatively in all the projects?

Yes we will have hopefully many artists on the label, and I will be involved to a greater or lesser degree depending on the project.

I certainly don’t need to be involved for my own sake, I want to provide a platform and community of likeminded people around the world.

Practice and listening aside, can you pinpoint one or two ‘things’ that really boosted your profile and career towards where it’s at today?

Having a weekly gig at Smalls in New York every Tuesday in the 90’s with my own band really helped me develop to the point where international presenters and industry people became aware of me.

The word spread about our night and we started getting offers for jazz festivals in Europe and when the lines were always down the block and around the corner, thats when I started getting interest from the labels and eventually got signed.

What’s your opinion on streaming services like Spotify? If you were just starting out, would you use these sites as a way to introduce new people to your music?

As far as I can tell Spotify is telling the artists that their music has no value, and yet they make literally billions of dollars of it. I am sure the consumers love it, but it is an incredibly damaging thing for music creation itself.

It takes investment to make music and if we get nothing back then how are we going to bring the world more music?

I think there needs to be some governmental regulation of the industry to achieve some kind of fairness and stop this raping of artists. I think it’s a pretty basic issue.

In your opinion, what’s a great European jazz club that gives gigs to interesting, emerging bands?

I think there are many!

Big thanks to Kurt for taking the time to answer these questions and share such good insight with us all. If you haven’t already, I’d highly recommend checking out what he’s got going on with the new label.

If you’re interested in checking some other articles from gigging jazz musicians (rather than ‘industry’ folk), I’d recommend starting here:

More about Kurt Rosenwinkel

Born in Philadelphia in 1970, Rosenwinkel attended the Berklee College of Music for two and a half years before leaving in his junior year to play guitar on tour with the legendary vibraphonist-composer-educator Gary Burton, the dean of the school at the time.

Subsequently, he moved to Brooklyn, where he continued to develop his music with his own groups and others such as Human Feel, Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, the Joe Henderson group and the Brian Blade Fellowship.

He left for Europe in 2003, and has spent the past twelve years in East Berlin, Germany, where he accepted a professorship at the Jazz Institute Berlin. Until recently, that is.

“I realized it was time to retire from teaching”, he says. “I needed to return fully to creating music, and leave the inner workings of it unspoken for a while.”

Kurt Rosenwinkel Trio – Angels Around (May 2020)

New trio album Angels Around features renowned jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel alongside Dario Deidda (bass guitar) & Greg Hutchinson (drums) and will be available worldwide on May 8th 2020 as a CD and LP. You can find out more here or watch the latest music video, Ugly Beauty by Thelonious Monk, below.

“This album traverses new musical frontiers in the standard jazz idiom. While Rosenwinkel, Hutchinson, and Deidda embody and emote the rich traditions of jazz at its purest form, make no mistake, this music is thoroughly contemporary, focused, and for the here and now.”

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