Kurt Rosenwinkel's second album is as compositionally daring as The Enemies of Energy, his more pop-flavored debut that came out last year. But The Next Step's voicings are more orthodox, effectively putting this remarkable guitarist within the straight-ahead jazz field. The Philadelphia native likes unorthodox tunings and unpredictable meters, and writes tunes that begin predictably, then take oddball turns. "Minor Blues," for example, lives up to its title, but it's far more than literal. It's a coloration and texture opportunity for Rosenwinkel, saxman Mark Turner, bassist Ben Street, and drummer Jeff Ballard. When Ballard backs the febrile, cerebral Rosenwinkel and the more emotive Turner, his alternating cymbal splashes and dryly precise rimshots give them plenty of room to move, creating a dense, thrilling weave.
The titles tell part of the story: With its unison lines, the exciting "Filters" starts like a standard bebop "head" tune, but the way Rosenwinkel and Turner split the theme intimates what Rosenwinkel means by the title. The two circle each other, mimic each other, duel each other, and above all spur each other on, creating some of the more invigorating moments on a disc that most often works on a more intellectual plane. And the title track, on which Rosenwinkel plays lovely, rubato piano, feels like the voyage it's meant to evoke. The Next Step swings pretty hard, too, on tunes such as "Zhivago," "Minor Blues," and "A Shifting Design." It also can be languid and lovely, as on the shadowy "Path of the Heart" and the sensual, echoing ballad, "A Life Unfolds." But it swings and sways complexly, suggesting that the dimensions of Rosenwinkel's versatility are yet to unfold. Such rich work also begs for performance.