Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Albert Brooks, Andrzej Pilarczyk
“Welcome to Winterfest, 2014,” Kurt Rosenwinkel said drily to the almost-full house at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center in Saratoga Springs. It seems that the guitarist and his epic quartet – pianist Aaron Parks, drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Orlando LeFleming – got stranded in a flash flood and caught in a blizzard after arriving in the area the previous day. Their surprise is quite understandable: It’s true Rosenwinkel has played in this area before while Parks and Scott have visited Saratoga Springs multiple times; however, those trips mostly happened during the summer, not during a spring season that’s doing its best to disprove the assertion that climate change is only a myth.
When the quartet took the stage, it wasn’t as cold as it had been the previous day, but it was definitely coat-and-sweater weather. Happily, the Zankel warmed up almost immediately as Scott led the charge into the grooving opener “Our Secret World.” This piece was older than most of the set, which came almost exclusively from Rosenwinkel’s 2012 release Star of Jupiter. But even though the soundman was obviously scrambling to find the proper mix for this group, Rosenwinkel was already swinging for the fences as he stood at center stage and struck “The Pose” (right foot forward, knee slightly bent, eyes down at his axe) and filled the house with a tough, hollow-body sound that could have melted a foot of snow.
The sound did even out (sort of) so we could hear Parks bring his own special brand of flowing noise to Rosenwinkel’s almost-ballad “Welcome Home” and his own waltzing “Isle of Everything,” and it was a special treat to watch Parks and Scott bat it back and forth on “Mr. Hope.” As Rosenwinkel’s foil, Parks couldn’t have been better, and since he was the keyboardist on Star, seeing him help Kurt expand on the recording was utterly sublime. Parks’ classical-avant, in-the-clear intro to the two-disc set’s title track set the piece up to blast off into space and close the regular set with a pronounced sonic boom.
Speaking of loud noises, Kendrick Scott was Godzilla-big on this night… and, for once, that wasn’t always a good thing. The man has always been a powerful, creative force, and when he wasn’t soloing, he was filling or countering whatever Rosenwinkel and Parks threw at him. The machinations he performed on his kit during the hushed intro to “Heavenly Bodies” showed that the bright mind discovered by Terence Blanchard hasn’t stopped growing or thinking. Here’s the problem, though: Scott’s overall power took up major space in Zankel’s towering acoustics, keeping Parks mostly in the background and downright obliterating LeFleming. The only time we really got a shot at the bass player was during his short solo on “Mr. Hope,” but apart from that, LeFleming could have mimed it all.
It’s been forever since I saw Rosenwinkel at SPAC, and my only recorded exposure to him comes from the 2009 release Reflections. He was playing with his Standards Trio on that disc, which is unquestionably beautiful, but doesn’t come close to the power and range this quartet generated. Rosenwinkel is the very essence of what a guitarist should be: Using only minimal electronic tricks and leaving physical histrionics to the punters, Rosenwinkel takes his instrument right to the ragged edge, and then takes it a few miles farther. He can wail in a sound that’s purely his own, and then finger-pick a standard so beautifully and intimately, it just makes you sigh. If Scott had been using sound walls like fellow drum-buster Terreon Gully, we might have heard more of the nuances this amazing unit attempted. As it stands, though, this was a warm, wonderful reminder that winter is almost a blip in our rear-view mirror, and that summertime shows will soon be back in Greater Nippertown.