Jazz labels are wiping the mold off their album covers and trying to become relevant again. Labels are giving deejays like Madlib and DJ Spinna free reign to remix their back catalogs. Blue Note has picked up Medeski Martin and Wood and Norah Jones. Stalwarts like Roy Hargrove and Herbie Hancock are once again jumping whole hog on the electronic bandwagon. With this freedom, will artists push boundaries and create truly innovative music? Or will it simply result in a redux of the 1970s fusion plague, a wash of bleeps and bloops punctuated by prodigious solos?
On Kurt Rosenwinkel’s new release on Verve, Heartcore, the answer is, simply, both. Heartcore was painted from a wide palette — Rosenwinkel even compares his album to a painting with “an inch and a half of paint on the canvas,” and there’s plenty to love on this album. But Rosenwinkel may ultimately regret that last half-inch of paint.
Rosenwinkel patiently assembled the album over the course of two years in his Brooklyn home studio, and he recruited Q-Tip to produce. The resulting product is extremely rich. Just like in the best hip-hop, there are layers upon layers of sound without anything jumping out to steal your attention. Rosenwinkel’s soundscapes are involved — most songs clock in at over six minutes, and they are stuffed with angular, tortuous melodies and alternately romantic and agitated harmony, all delivered with textured, multiculti instrumentation. As a consequence of this commotion, you won’t remember any particular song. But the overall feel of the album leaves an indelible, if murky, impression.
Most of the solos, especially from tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, are daring without resorting to histrionics. Turner’s work is reminiscent of fellow New Yorker Chris Potter’s contributions to Steely Dan and Dave Holland Big Band. Rosenwinkel’s rhythm section — Ben Street and Jeff Ballard — amaze. They steer his complicated compositions deftly, whether tastefully breezing through the softer sections, or tightly rollicking through odd time signatures without coming off like a wankerific fusion band.
Unfortunately, wankery does raise its chintzy head, mostly in the form of Rosenwinkel’s solos and arrangements. Several of his solos reek of Berklee — they are unremarkably remarkable. His delay-drenched, warble-y, distorted tone doesn’t make this music sound any less like a mid-’80s John Scofield electro-fusion indulgence. And “Your Visions,” with its oh-so-creepy synths, curious howling and echoing bass clarinet, should have ended five minutes before it did.
As a whole, though, this album works. Rosenwinkel has his own sound, and it is an impressive advance from the already startlingly original work of his previous efforts with a more straight-ahead lineup. Heartcore is equally at home in a lounge or a living room, and there is more than enough artistry to satisfy even the most pointy-headed jazzer. Rosenwinkel is an innovator, and since he shows exceptional restraint for someone with so much talent and attention to detail, he can be forgiven when he goes overboard.