Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel long has walked a fine line between sophistication and accessibility, experimentation and convention.
His knack for appealing to connoisseurs as well as the uninitiated has made him one of the most widely applauded guitarists of the under-50 generation, which helps explain the sizable crowd that turned out to hear him Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, notwithstanding competition from a certain hockey game.
This time, though, Rosenwinkel leaned strongly in one direction: toward a mainstream, fairly conservative musical language. The result was some beautiful playing from an incarnation of what Rosenwinkel calls his Standards Trio project. A little edgier approach would have made matters more interesting, but there was no questioning the fluidity of this band's work or the innate integrity of Rosenwinkel's solos.
Some of his most poetic playing emerged in "When Sunny Gets Blue," a moody nocturne that gave Rosenwinkel ample opportunity for long and winding lines, unhurried rhythms and the kinds of pauses that a singer might take while catching a breath between phrases. There were no showy displays here, no excessive filigree – just a lovely, unpretentious, soft-spoken lyricism well-suited to the tune.
Rosenwinkel conveyed a similar poetry of gesture in Thelonious Monk's "Ugly Beauty," the guitarist rounding the angular edges of the song's contours and bringing an understated drama to its ever-ascending line. Here was Monk cast in an after-hours mode, everything expressed in the gentlest possible terms. Even Rosenwinkel's reharmonizations of the famous melody were quite subtle, a note changed here and there to bring a slightly different emotional tint to the piece.
In both of these songs, and others, bassist Orlando le Fleming matched the tenor and tone of Rosenwinkel's quietly fervent playing, no small feat. Le Fleming consistently maintained both a broad melodic arc and an unmistakable sense of pulse. Drummer Jochen Rueckert also kept everything at an even keel, his dynamic levels moderate, his attacks crisp but unobtrusive.
Even in John Coltrane's "26-2," Rosenwinkel and Rueckert traded up-tempo solos as if engaging in a warm conversation rather than a fiery dialogue.
All of which made for some very fine ensemble and solo work but a bit less heat or surprise than one would have wished. This was music that fell easily on the ear, and at least a little more edge would have helped.
Perhaps as the weekend goes on Rosenwinkel and friends will up their intensity and inventiveness a bit. If they don't, they'll be providing an attractive, largely nostalgic approach to jazz standards that surely merits hearing. But more of the idiosyncratic harmonic language that is Rosenwinkel's forte would be welcome.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court
Admission: $30-$45; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye