The influential jazz guitarist makes a personal record that combines Brazilian music, current soul music, and jazz into something unique, sunny, and compelling.
Kurt Rosenwinkel is a quiet legend in jazz these days: a jazz guitarist who has played with a vast array of the best musicians in the world yet remains less storied than, say, Pat Metheny or John Scofield. Rosenwinkel was at Berklee when the school’s dean, legendary vibes master Gary Burton, asked him to tour with his band. Before long, Rosenwinkel was developing his unique sound by playing with legends and his most talented contemporaries -- folks like Paul Motian, Joe Henderson, Mark Turner, Brad Mehldau, and Brian Blade. That Rosenwinkel has also collaborated a couple of times with hip-hop legend, Q-Tip simply marks him as typical of his generation of jazz musicians in having influence and outlets that are truly varied. But to be clear: he’s a big deal in jazz of the last 20 years.
Caipi is a project that Rosenwinkel has been working on for ten years, and it isn’t quite like anything else we’ve heard from him. First, it’s not a jazz album, at least the kind we expect.
Rather, it uses rhythms and other elements from Brazilian music to create a sunny album of impressionistic pop. Rosenwinkel plays not only guitar but also drums, keys, bass... and he sings. His partner on the recording is Brazilian musician Pedro Martins who contributes to almost every tune, but also special guests on various tracks who include Eric Clapton. Is Rosenwinkel such a good guitarist that Clapton drops in for a track? That’s right.
But none of the guest appearances define Caipi, which is a moody, lilting collection of textures and musical pleasures that are decidedly not defined by one searing solo or one killer vocal. It’s only real analogue is Wayne Shorter’s album Native Dancer from 1974, a joyous collaboration between the brilliant jazz saxophonist and Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento. Native Dancer, which came out during Shorter’s stint with Weather Report, was nevertheless seen by many as a somewhat light-hearted piece of pop — not the return to “serious” jazz that some Shorter fans were hoping for in ’74.
Caipi is also a soaring, fun recording that seems aimed away from jazz but with plenty of beautiful jazz improvisation. Like Native Dancer uses Brazilian music but captures some of the soulful feelings of today’s best pop music in places. If Shorter’s record captured a dose of ‘70s soul (and that was a significant influence on both jazz and pop musicians with big ears), then Rosenwinkel punches his Brazilian music into a zone that borrows subtly from the pop music of the 2000s. The opening title track, for example, sounds like pure samba for ten seconds -- the syncopated, chiming acoustic guitar -- until the bass and piano come in throbbing as if they had sonic roots in a dance club. The wordless vocals are by Rosenwinkel and Martins, and they bring to mind the feathered Brazilian vocals of the 1960s, but the groove is entirely up to date.
For fans of modern jazz guitar, a couple of the tunes here will bring to mind the bag that Pat Metheny so successfully mined for years with his Pat Metheny Group. “Casio Vanguard” and “Casio Escher” both have soaring kind of groove that puts a pop-jazz gloss on a Brazilian rhythm, wordless vocals, and guitar flying free of it all in the most melodic way. (They also are both built, it seems, on an actual arpeggiated automatic groove from a Casio keyboard!) “Vanguard” contains all kinds of gorgeous details: ringing synth chimes and bells, sudden changes in groove that still percolate with joy, and Portuguese lyrics sung in octaves. “Escher” builds from a simpler groove and just keeps adding pieces to its propulsion, including an uncanny unison between voice and guitar and, eventually, Mark Turner’s tenor saxophone joining the ensemble, interacting with guitars and groove in effervescence.
What about the Clapton song? It’s terrific: a propulsive but impressionistic 7/4 groove that features Rosenwinkel’s most effective singing using lyrics in English (though etched with Amanda Brecker an octave or two up). The leader also plays a busy, highly patterned solo on piano. Is there a Clapton guitar solo? Who knows, but toward the end, there’s some bent string stuff for a moment that is Claptonesque. Perhaps the larger point is just that Clapton digs Rosenwinkel. And he should.
Here are some other reasons. “Summer Song”, which starts with some lovely piano from the leader, may be the most conventional “pop song” here, though one with a dreamy texture. “Chromatic B” is the closest that Caipi comes to a conventional jazz track, a hip tune in 6/8 that begins with a piano improvisation and works its way into a galloping bass groove over which Rosenwinkel constructs a violin/guitar lead. “Hold On” may remind some folks of the Brazilian-tinged work done by punk icon Arto Lindsay in the way it pushes the Brazilian feel with urgency. Turner’s other appearance is on “Ezra”, where he gets to take a long solo over a nice, lazy groove.
Folks not inclined to dig a faux-Brazilian music album on which a leading jazz guitarist sings against his better judgment are not out of their minds. Rosenwinkel knows that his singing is not the headline and, for some listeners, a possible deal-breaker. His voice is pleasant but weak and, sometimes, shaky. He pairs with a few stronger voices, teams it up with Mark Turner’s sax, and embeds it into a wall of shimmering synths and guitars. I love Caipi because, taken as a whole, it is buoyant, thrilling, gorgeously imagined. It is not a record that dishes up heaping guitar solos but one that puts together a mood.
Caipi is by all accounts a passion project of Kurt Rosenwinkel’s, and I think his voice -- vocally, on guitar, on drums, pretty much everywhere -- had to be at its center. That it is also an act of joy is extraordinary. With each listen, the musical details emerge more fully. I recommend it for the months before summer hits. It is a ray of sunshine.