With all due respect to New York City’s hip hero Bill Frisell and to my favorite living improvising guitarist, John Scofield, the template for the respectable and sustainable career as a modern jazz guitarist/composer was largely constructed by one man alone: the great Pat Metheny, over his restless and prolific six-decade (and counting) career. It’s not so much a stylistic template (though his influence there is monolithic) as a living model of how to balance respect for popular audiences on one hand and respect for the grueling standards of innovation and advancement in America’s most sophisticated and cerebral indigenous music on the other.
Around the time of Offramp, the third Pat Metheny Group record (RIP and eternal gratitude, Lyle Mays; we love you always), Pat discovered Brazil. I mean, it had been sitting there, all big and shit, for centuries if not millennia; but each jazz generation, and arguably each jazz composer, has to rediscover it for herself like a spiritual colonist who knows that what they need is some humility (humiliation?) and who knows exactly where to find it on the map. And, kind of mystically, they each find a highly personalized variety of comeuppance there, as if Brazil knew them when they were born and knew they were coming. Music in Brazil is like the jump shot in Indiana or bagels in New York or slack in New Paltz: They’re just better at it and there is little point arguing. Pat, when you think about, has never really left Brazil. It’s his own little Hotel California.
Like Metheny before him, Kurt Rosenwinkel was plucked out of Berklee by the vibraphonist Gary Burton, who, along with Miles, is one of jazz’s most prescient vampires of young talent. A modern jazz guitarist cannot have a more propitious beginning than Burton’s endorsement and imprimatur, and Rosenwinkel, now about to enter the third decade of his prolific and serious career, has borne the tradition and the burden with diligence and dignity. I cannot pretend to know when Brazil first spoke to this technical wizard of a guitarist. It is so much a part of the standard diet of jazz that I suppose it has always been in him. But it is notable that when Kurt Rosenwinkel – a player known for a special level of technical virtuosity in a field where virtuosity is the basic credential for entry – wanted to get personal, get emotional and get centered on the expressive motive of songs, that’s when he really went to Brazil.
The yield of this intimate and personal exploration was the lovely 2017 album and ongoing project called Caipi. Ears accustomed to fast genre IDs and pigeonholing judgment (which is pretty much all of us, I’d say) are going to think, about 45 seconds into the title track, “Okay, this is his Pat/Brazil moment.” Shame that we’re like that, because anyone who sticks with this record is going to end up laughing at that original misperception. Caipi, to these ears at least, comes off sounding – well I’ll be darned – like Kurt Rosenwinkel’s version of a bedroom indie-rock album, really synched in some ways to the same intimate and do-it-yourself globalist impulse of stuff like tUnE-yArDs, Yeasayer or Rubblebucket, sharing even in the lyrical theme of an unironic, renewed naïveté and innocence, the theme that so beset the rich kids of Brooklyn in the aughts: the abdication of cynicism (amongst them who can afford to live without it).
But before getting back to Caipi, a necessary digression: Why does jazz raid Brazil? The most obvious answer is the bottomless rhythmic fertility of samba and bossa nova, a motion and an accenting so subtle and evolved that Americans have almost no chance of getting it right – and indeed, there are whole genres of music based entirely on the ways in which Americans get it wrong! But it goes much deeper than this. If jazz, in the Lincoln Center official family version, was born in a literally violent collision of the street and the conservatory in New Orleans, the music of Brazil is also an incredibly rich tangle of folk music and high culture. In the figure of one Brazilian alone – Antonio Carlos Jobim – did jazz discover an entire 20th-century harmonic matrix that it will never be done exploring and crossbreeding.
But that’s not all, either. There’s one final Brazilian factor that relates directly to why Caipi is such a good and significant record for Rosenwinkel. It has to do with songs and singing. In America, vocal jazz is, to put it delicately, problematic. It seems locked in an archaic set of mannerisms and available personae. It has been mocked to a point where it cannot shed its own awareness of the stereotypes – from blues tropes to Bill Murray, the laughs of the lounge, every dumb Sinatra or scat impersonator. Not so Brazil, where there remain simple and unaffected ways to sing sophisticated music. There are easy ways to cross over into psychedelia and even rock, as proven by the timeless and popular Tropicalia movement. There are ways, in the Brazilian mode, in which it is still oddly possible to be yourself when you sing.
Rosenwinkel has sung before in his career, and his vocal turns on Caipi are charmingly raw, especially when coupled with his own enthusiastic drumming (remember, bedroom DIY in effect here) and his lyrical worldview on such tracks as “Hold On.” Caipi is earthy, celestial and psychedelic, jangly, at times even a little klutzy in an entirely endearing way, and shot through with brilliant-though-restrained guitar-playing (including a cameo by…Eric Clapton). Kurt Rosenwinkel really found, in the musical lexicon of Brazil, the license to be himself in a way that must feel marvelously liberating from the onus of jazz.
Rosenwinkel has something else in common with Metheny (and Scofield, and, and and…): He plays at the Falcon. Kurt Rosenwinkel brings the Caipi band to the Falcon on Friday, March 20. This is one not to miss. Per usual, there is no cover at the Falcon, even when it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel; but table reservations are accepted and will go fast.
Friday, Mar. 20, 8 p.m., Donation,
The Falcon, 1348 Rt. 9W, Marlboro
(845) 236-7970, www.liveatthefalcon.com