How to shape your solos like Kurt Rosenwinkel

"Chords" is from Kurt Rosenwinkel's album The Remedy recorded live at the Village Vanguard in New York City. This solo encompasses a variety of pentatonic scale applications paired with modal and melodic pairings over the form.

Published on Feb 22nd, 2020

Updated on Jun 16th, 2022

The Remedy and "Chords"

The Remedy is a double LP that was recorded at The Village Vanguard in 2006 and is Kurt’s seventh album as a leader. The opening track, “Chords” seems like a simple modal waltz at first, opening with a piano riff over Gmin7. It’s a fast three, about 𝅘𝅥= 260, but the melody and harmonic rhythm move slowly so the groove doesn’t feel frantic. About 32 bars into the head, the harmonic rhythm picks up and goes from a chord every eight bars to two bars, and eventually a chord change every bar. The melody, however, maintains long tied notes that skate over the harmonic rhythm almost like a chant until the 64th measure of this 96 measure form. This is where Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel turn up the gas and begin playing technically demanding and fast pentatonic patterns in unison over mostly Ebmin7, but also dance through Gmaj7, F#maj7, Bbmaj7, and Amin7.

"Chords" on YouTube

Just like the melody, Kurt uses the harmonic rhythm of the head to guide the density and complexity of his lines. In other words, when the harmonic rhythm and tonal center are more stable i.e. the modal Gmin7 to Bbmin7 to Gmin7 part, Kurt’s ideas are more motivic and simple harmonically. During the more intense sections that quickly jump from one non-functional chord to another, Kurt masterfully weaves through them with long chromatic eighth-note lines. This creates an overarching sense of tension and release throughout the solo.

In other words, when the harmonic rhythm and tonal center are more stable i.e. the modal Amin7 to Cmin7 to Amin7 part, Kurt’s ideas are more motivic and simple harmonically.

Analysis and Examples

Here are a few examples of how Kurt takes advantage of the resolved and slow-moving harmonic rhythm of the first third of the form by creating a simple rhythmic motif using only a few notes.

Example 1

Starts at ~3:51

Shown above is Kurt’s opening eight bars of his second chorus. After a complex series of fast eighth-note lines to conclude his first chorus, Kurt uses the openness of the top of the form to create a rhythmic motif that almost implies a 5/4 meter.

Example 2

Here is another example over the same part of the form. In this example, Kurt uses short diatonic runs over Amin7. Each iteration of the diatonic run uses slightly different rhythms, which ensures the line doesn’t become stale and repetitive.

Just like in the melody of the tune, Kurt uses the Ebmin7 to Ebmin7Gbvamps as peaks of his choruses by playing pentatonic patterns that vary just enough that they do not sound stale or predetermined.

Example 3

Shown above is one of many examples of Kurt’s use of pentatonics which can be found near the end of his first chorus. At the very end of the melody, Kurt plays a line leading into the top of his first solo chorus that uses this same technique while also incorporating another useful harmonic concept seen throughout this solo.

Example 4

In both the melody and improvised solo, Kurt shows a particular method of weaving through the seemingly unrelated chords by finding a target note and creating a line with a chromatic approach note to the target chord tone. Below is the melody line that perfectly models this technique and operates as the basis for Kurt’s lines in each of his solo choruses at that part of the form.

Example 5

Another method Kurt uses is finding a common tone between two chords and forming lines around the common tone.

Example 6

In this example, Kurt uses both methods of connecting non-functional chord progressions. From Emin7 to Gbmaj7, Kurt’s target chord tone is Bb, which he approaches from a chromatic tone above, B. In the next chord change from Gbmaj7 to Dmaj7, Kurt uses the common tone Gb/F# to connect the two unrelated chords.

In all of these examples, Kurt stays very inside the changes, using mainly pentatonics and diatonic tones that nicely fit in each chord while improvising. But there are moments in this solo where Kurt uses non-diatonic notes that really stretch the harmonic boundaries.

Example 7

In these two examples found at the beginning of Kurt’s second chorus, Kurt uses the major 3rd over a minor 7th chord. The first example sounds like a simple substitution of a Bb7 chord for a Bbmin7 chord. With the bass on a pedal, and a tacet piano, it was really up to Kurt to imply any chord he wanted to with his note choices. In the Gmin7 example, however, Kurt really stretches the possibilities of a minor 7th chord. By stacking four notes, F, G, B, and C, Kurt creates a simple sound palette in an otherwise very dissonant note choice. By resolving the line on a high C, Kurt implies that the B is functioning as a leading tone to C, which is a very consonant note in Gmin7. That being said, Kurt does not shy away from holding that Major 3rd either as seen in measure 224. At the top of the third and final chorus, Kurt changes up his approach over the pedal Gmin7 and Bbmin7 sections by creating lines that alternate between minor modes and implies dominant7b9 cadences.

Example 8

In the example above, we see how Kurt superimposes an D harmonic minor scale over Gmin7 and resolves it by using an Ebo7 arpeggio as if to imply an Dâ™­9 chord.

Example 9

In the above excerpt is an example of how Kurt creates lines that alternate between two minor modes. In the first four bars, Kurt uses Bb harmonic minor and in the next four bars, raises the 6th scale degree to be in the Bb melodic minor.

Conclusion

This solo is an excellent example of pentatonic implementation in a largely melodic application, which is not a use case that regularly surfaces around that harmonic approach. This, combined with the solid connection to the form of the song, harmonic rhythm, and pacing constitutes an exhilarating solo that builds naturally and uses modern improvisational techniques while remaining grounded in the jazz tradition.

Check out the rest of the album The Remedy (Live at the Village Vanguard) by Kurt Rosenwinkel on his website. If you enjoy it, purchase the album and support the artist directly!