Whatever one thinks of Rosenwinkel's prior disc, Heartcore (and, admittedly, it received mixed reviews, at best--although some of us majorly dug it), I think it can safely be said it proved an important step in his musical development, kinda like the role Largo (another not altogether well-received effort) played in Brad Mehldau's career: each musician came out of his brief experiment with electronica wielding both a broader sonic palette and a greater depth of musical understanding.
Interestingly, here these two artists have joined forces, as it were, Mehldau (at least for this disc) becoming the piano counterpart to Rosenwinkel's guitar. That they mesh so well is hardly surprising. Perhaps the most obvious example is their work on "The Next Step," a reworking of the title tune of Rosenwinkel's last album before Heartcore. On the former outing, the leader played piano--competently enough, it must be said, but nothing that special. On this outing, which casually trumps the former, Mehldau forms and integral and essential part of the new conception, which is at once more intense, more swinging, and more ephemerally brilliant. Indeed, one can scarcely imagine the piece in its former incarnation after this masterful rereading. Very much like the transformation Ben Allison effected with his song "Buzz," originally from his Medicine Wheel disc, and then becoming the title (and, it must be said, signature) tune of his latest disc, Buzz.
Sometimes, I think, jazz needs to go through a kind of rebirth, often by encountering alien musics, such as, for instance, electronica, for it to achieve its proper apocalypses, showing forth, manifestation. Granted, these experiments, these encounters, are not always uniformly successful. Nevertheless, they provide the matrix, don't they, for the music to burst forth into joyous elegiacism, carrying with it all the glories of the tradition even as it heralds forth new and as yet unseen glories. Jazz after all is meant to be a living, developing music, a music rooted in the past but always thrusting forward into the future.
And that's what we've got here: musicians grounded in the idiom but equipped to speak it into the next generation, where other artists will appropriate the vision, expand it, and produce its next iteration, just as these artists have absorbed the lessons of swing, bop, hardbop, freebop, and world jazz and mapped them onto new musical vistas of the grandest conception.
A few specific observations. Rosenwinkel's tone and timbre bear an uncanny resemblance to Pat Metheny's on this disc, although his concept and phrasing owe little to him. Indeed, it's almost as if Rosenwinkel has fully absorbed Metheny's approach, and then moved light years beyond it, all the while retaining some of its essential elements. Moreover, this disc is brilliantly recorded by James Farber, quickly becoming the new Jan Erik Kongshaug (not surprising to find him as the engineer behind such brilliant projects as Abercrombie's Class Trip, and the latest from Motian/Lovano/Frisell, I Have the Room Above Her). Finally, and this is a little hard to say, as Jeff Ballard is one of my drums heroes, but I think he's outdone by Ali Jackson (who plays on the majority of tracks), although one must admit that each brings his own genius to the table.
In any case, this is jazz as it's meant to be--gorgeous, edgy, prophetic, quirky, and unique. A very great disc, certainly Rosenwinkel's finest to date, and among a handful of truly significant discs released in the new millennium.