This past Tuesday, a brigade of College students, Jazz Studies department members, and Oberlin community members could be found grooving in the dimly lit confines of the jam-packed Cat in the Cream. Thanks to the efforts of the Oberlin Jazz Society, the Cat’s stage was host to the iconic Kurt Rosenwinkel and his star-studded quartet. Their electric, experimental melodies sent a thrill of awe across the enthralled, head-bobbing crowd. Rosenwinkel returned some of the sheer admiration coming from within his audience — about midway through the set, he offered props to the concert’s student facilitators. He noted that he had not expected his Oberlin debut to be solely student-facilitated and produced.
“It was just such a wonderful scene to be involved [in],” Rosenwinkel said. “Deep in the students’ layer, hanging out with everybody and being a part of the generation that you guys are coming up in, to be able to visit and have a great time with everybody was absolutely wonderful.”
This kind of recognition coming from Rosenwinkel is no small thing. Often credited as the preeminent jazz guitarist of his generation, Rosenwinkel could be heard dispensing casual and succinct slices of wisdom to a winding single-file line of student musicians hoping for the chance to get in a quick chat with him after the show. But the aftershow fervor was not the only setting in which Rosenwinkel offered up his expertise; earlier that day, he taught a masterclass in which Conservatory Jazz Studies majors and jazz aficionados could observe his creative process.
“I think every day there’s lessons to be learned,” Rosenwinkel said. “And I think today … I saw people learning things about how to mix and how to produce. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity that the kids have to do this, because this is professional stuff.”
Conservatory third-year and Oberlin Jazz Society Board Member Noah Nelson not only attended Rosenwinkel’s masterclass and concert, he also buzzed around behind the scenes for a full nine hours on Tuesday, installing and uninstalling equipment, situating gear, and hanging out with Rosenwinkel and his quartet. As a transfer student and recent electee to the position of Gear and Setup Manager on the OJS board, Nelson was thrown into a process that was already in full swing. There were some hiccups along the way; the piano at the Cat in the Cream had not been played all summer, and most of the OJS members working to put on the concert were new to the board and unaware that they needed to put in a request to get the piano tuned ahead of time. The quartet’s pianist, Aaron Parks, ended up playing the set on an electric Rhodes keyboard.
“It was 7 p.m., no piano tuner or anybody with any knowhow as far as tuning a piano goes … and so Aaron Parks ended up playing the Rhodes,” Nelson said. “I thought it was pretty cool. That’s a really beautiful-sounding instrument, and he’s a beautiful-sounding musician; they just wanted to do their job and do it well.”
For Nelson, some of the most indispensable knowledge to be extracted from the whole experience came from the originality that Rosenwinkel brought to the performance and masterclass.
“Kurt’s visit here, his masterclass, and his concert were really important because he’s been, for 30 years, kind of at the forefront of modern jazz movements,” Nelson said. “He didn’t play the standards, he didn’t play the usual repertoire. He played all original music in an original styling … a lot of the grooves that were used were kind of derived from hip hop and soul.”
Nelson also gave appreciated Rosenwinkel’s use of improvisation.
“I’m really into free music, free improvisation, free jazz,” Nelson said. “He was just talking about how you can learn so much about yourself through free improvisation … he kind of got philosophical with it and was drawing this direct line between musical improvisation and life improvisation, which I thought was kind of beautiful and not something I had thought tremendously about myself.”
Even though the day was taxing, Nelson left the show feeling inspired and went straight into an after-hours jam session with a handful of his Conservatory peers.The Rosenwinkel Quartet’s esteemed drummer, Gregory Hutchinson, believes that the excitement the show elicited in Nelson and his peers is exactly the goal.
“I remember a long time ago, this was me in this same position,” Hutchinson said. “So it’s always good to help the students out, to evolve, to get better, to think about leaving school, you know? I think that’s the thing. Once you’re in school and you see some people come through who are doing what you want to do, it gives you inspiration, too.”