Renee Rosnes Quartet
Jazz from Vancouver BC
Renee Rosnes Stirs Up the Musical Melting Pot By DON HECKMAN January 6 2002 Canadian-born pianist Renee Rosnes has one of the most enviable resumes in jazz. Among the many musical associations it lists are pairings with the likes of Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis, James Moody and J.J. Johnson. In addition, Rosnes has released a series of well-crafted, musically imaginative recordings that feature her crisp, bop-based improvisation and envelope-stretching compositions. So why is it that she continues to have--insofar as the wider jazz audience is concerned--such relatively low visibility? While I hesitate to identify sexism as a primary cause, I wouldn't eliminate it either, given the genre's traditionally male domination. In this sometimes misogynistic environment, female jazz instrumentalists have frequently faced a rocky climb to prominence. (Don't be dissuaded by Diana Krall's remarkable successes; despite her fine piano playing, it is her voice that is generating sales of tons of CDs.) Rosnes is far from the only female jazz artist obliged to deal with the perilous, even Sisyphean, aspects faced by women in their ascent to the music's upper levels. In recent years alone, a great deal of compelling music--from fine players such as Lynn Arriale, Geri Allen, Jane Ira Bloom, Sara Cion, Eliane Elias, Myra Melford and Jane Bunnett, to name only a few--has received considerably less notice than deserved. It's especially unfortunate in the case of Rosnes, given the growingly impressive quality of her work, and the expanding horizons of her musical vision. "Life on Earth" (***1/2, Blue Note), scheduled for release Tuesday, is an important album, not just for Rosnes, but for jazz as a whole. With this recording, she makes a persuasive case for the music's capacity to interface in meaningful creative fashion with elements of other musical cultures. Such synthesis is not new, of course, dating from Jelly Roll Morton's fascination with the "Spanish tinge" to the recent appearances by Pharoah Sanders, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter on an album by Ethiopian singer Gigi. But Rosnes brings together a surprisingly diverse collection of global elements into a rich, seamless tapestry of musical colors. Among the international players present: Indian tabla drummer Zakir Hussain, Senegalese djembe (West African drum) player Mor Thiam and Brazilian percussionist Duduka Da Fonseca. Add to that a Western contingent of drummers Jeff "Tain" Watts and Billy Drummond (Rosnes' husband); bassists John Patitucci and Christian McBride; saxophonists Chris Potter and Walt Weiskopf and trombonist (and conch shell player) Steve Turre. That's a load of talent, and Rosnes makes the most of it in atmospheric originals seasoned by lovely piano trio renderings of the Fran Landesman-Tommy Wolf cabaret classic "Ballad of the Sad Young Men," and "Nana," from a suite of Andalusian folk songs arranged by Manuel De Falla. In the originals, Rosnes' solutions to the problems of stylistic integration are startlingly effective: the way, for example, she links the harmonies of her improvising on "Empress Afternoon" to the single-pitch rhythms of Hussain's tabla drumming; the high-life feel of "Senegal Son," with Steve Nelson added on marimba, Shelley Brown on alto flute and Thiam on percussion and vocal sounds; the use of sampled Balinese monk chants in "Hanuman"; and the addition of chanting from Native American singer Kevin Tarrant on "Icelight," a piece inspired by Rosnes' memories of the Canadian Northwest. This may all sound like a musical grab bag, but it's much more than that, a musical mosaic shimmering with dazzling combinations of sound and rhythm on virtually every track. If there's any justice in the world, "Life on Earth" is the album that will introduce many more listeners to Rosnes' exceptional talents.
A recent New York Times article lamented the too pervasive influence of Herbie Hancock among jazz pianists, breathing a sigh of relief that some young players had finally gotten past his shadow. Nobody wants to be anyone's epigone forever, but there is a reason why Herbie's neo-impressionism left such an appealing thread for younger pianists to weave, especially since he has only sporadically played in the supple, sinuous vein that blew everyone away in the '60s. Ren�e Rosnes emerged in the '80s as one of Herbie's strongest disciples, and since the man himself was spending much time in an electronic wilderness, who better to pick up his conception and take it somewhere else? Indeed, on a duet with Herbie himself on Rosnes's first CD, it's hard to tell them apart.
One could carp that at Rosnes's quartet gig at Sweet Basil� including her husband, Billy Drummond, on drums and the mega-hyped Chris Potter on tenor and soprano� Herbie's spirit still lingered on the bandstand, but in the set's finest moments, it couldn't have been invoked with more alacrity, grace, and subtlety. After a couple of perfunctory numbers, Rosnes coyly turned to the mike and, after nearly announcing the next tune, merely said: "I'm not going to tell you what it is 'cause I want to see if you recognize it." Launching into a Zen-like "With a Little Help From My Friends," she found so many calm spaces within the tune that her performance undid all of Joe Cocker's paroxysms at Woodstock. A major-key version of "Footprints," meanwhile, perversely gave Wayne Shorter's brooding tune a dose of Prozac.
But it was her performance of Ellington's "African Flower" that not only evidenced close listenings to Money Jungle, but also a harmonic restlessness, ingeniously stacking voicings, or substituting chords where you'd least expect them, without losing any of Ellington's cool rumblings. On her last tune, Herbie finally left the building, at least temporarily. Behind thumping quarter notes, Rosnes took a break from the Debussyian swirl for some compact lines that would have evoked a "one more once" from Basie himself. I'm sure Herbie's fingerprints resurfaced for the second set, but however much Rosnes strays, she clearly has the world at her own fingertips. David Yaffe, Village Voice
"This young Canadian may well be the Muhammed Ali of modern jazz piano -- floating, stinging and floating again, with a touch that's tender as a kiss and just as dangerous." Joe Venderford, The Independent Weekly
"No rhythmic inflection went unexplored, harmonies within a tune kept changing, and the formal elements were simply signposts for the soloists...she's a virtuoso, but a quiet one." Peter Watrous, NY Times
"...It was one of the more excting entries any band had made at this Festival (Montreal Jazz), and the momentum never sagged for the rest of the concert." Paul Wells, The Gazette
"Rosnes combines a muscular forthright style with an awesome ability to navigate complex shoals of far-out freewheeling improvisations. A paradoxical amalgam of passion and precision." Ross McLennan, Winnepeg Sun
"From the title track's intimate collective voicings to tracks like "Black Holes" and "The Land of Five Rivers" propulsive swing, Rosnes and company produce glorious, soulful and deep modern jazz that is firmly rooted in the tradition while showcasing a truly inspired original voice." - (on As We Are Now) The Times Colonist
"(Rosnes) rubs balm in jaded ears. She offers exquisite balances of delicacy and power, witty and weighted ideas, assertiveness and deference." Fred Bouchard, Down Beat
"Rosnes has carved out for herself a reputation as one of jazz's new bright lights. She has impressed veterans of the bebop and free jazz wars with a crisp, uncluttered approach to improvisation that respects, but doesn't genuflect to, the music of the past... Her exposure to a variety of artists has prodded her to develop a clear voice all her own." Bob Young, The Boston Globe
"She is her own woman...an extended solo on the quartet's opening night was breathtaking, both in concept and execution." Philip Elwood, San Francisco Examiner
"An absolutely stunning achievement. Rosnes has grown and matured into one of the finest pianists in jazz. Her playing is inventive, complex and always illuminating." Greg Sutherland, The Jazz Report
"Her playing here had the kind of rush and sweep that seemed to leave her repeatedly on the verge of running out of piano. The instrument was scarcely large enough to contain her imagination." Mark Miller, The Globe and Mail
"Rosnes plumbs the depths of the songs and the players, reserving enough energy to reel off some phenomenal solos." Hank Bordowitz, Emerge Magazine