A Portrait of Renee Rosnes

by Rom Ferri

What happens when a young, exceptionally gifted three-year-old begins piano lessons and has the chance to develop musically? Under the finest circumstances, a Renee Rosnes emerges. Born in 1962 and raised in Vancouver, she studied music through the Royal Academy of Music in Toronto, Canada. Piano lessons were coupled with a highly structured and regulated teaching system which included ear training, sightreading, theory/harmony, and music history. Yearly exams preceded each of ten levels.

She also studied and played violin in youth orchestras from age eight to eighteen. The repertoire included the standard orchestral works of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich, Nielsen, and many others. Rosnes's favorite orchestral pieces included the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, the Ravel Afternoon of a Faun, and works by the Danish composer and violinist Carl Nielsen. The youth orchestra experience broadened her appreciation of the sonorities and capabilities of different instruments, and later probably ignited her passion for composing for different wind instruments. In short, she fell in love with horns.

An astute grade school (and later, high school) music director named Bob Rebagliati discovered her talent after recruiting her for his jazz ensembles. Rosnes describes her jazz beginnings this way:

"Bob Rebagliati really is the one who introduced me to jazz and exposed me to a lot of great music. I had two older sisters who each played the piano and one stringed instrument also. The middle one played cello; my oldest sister and I played violin and piano. And, going through school, they went before me. So he knew there was another Rosnes kid coming along, and he could recruit me for the jazz band because he needed a pianist that year.

"I really didn't know anything about jazz or whatever. I can't even say that I liked it when I first started messing around with it! But I liked the idea of the playing by ear. I'd explored that anyway even when I was in elementary school just by taking tunes off the radio to play for my friends, like Elton John tunes and Paul McCartney tunes. So I was accustomed to doing that. I liked to play by ear…

"'Reb' gave me records right away. One of the first things he gave me was an Oscar Peterson record with the Singers Unlimited because the swing choir was going to do one of the tunes off that record. He gave me this record and said 'Go home and listen to this because you're going to take a piano solo on this tune, and I want you to hear was Oscar does.'

"I remember listening to Oscar. First of all, I was amazed at his technique. Then I remember thinking, 'Well, I can hear all the notes,' so I proceeded to write all the notes - all these little notes - all over the page! I didn't understand the rhythms because he was playing so fast and in swing rhythm. So I wrote these notes out and I kind of learned part of it. I just kind of transcribed it on my own.

"I didn't realize that was a difficult thing to do, but I couldn't understand the rhythms. I could play the rhythms but I didn't know how to write them out!"

At this point, according to Rosnes, her music director became very enthusiastic and began giving her records of Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and others. The jazz combo played tunes like "The Sidewinder" by Lee Morgan and "Chameleon" by Hancock. The big band played Count Basie charts.

Today, Renee writes and records for two or three horns and rhythm section. Her horn influences include Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, former Messenger Wayne Shorter, and the Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler.

"Lots of times when I hear melodies in my head, I hear a trumpet playing it, or a tenor, alto, or soprano sax. All records that I've done up to now are done in that vein. They always have horn players playing the music that I've written. When I'm hearing and writing for horns, I don't need to be at the piano."

Rosnes's goal is to write "a whole record of piano trio music." Her classical piano training makes her want to write jazz piano pieces using the entire range of piano technique, not merely melodies supported by harmonic background. She loves the piano music of the Impressionists Ravel and Debussy. She listens to favorite pianists Horowitz and Claudio Arrau. She buys at least one classical CD every time she shops for jazz records.

Of course, another most important aspect of Rosnes (not to undermine her wonderful compositional abilities, exhibited on her recordings) is her playing. Her artistry is deeply mature, strong and sensitive. She is always extremely focused on the musical style and task at hand - witness the solos on many of her recordings.

On a recent recording (unreleased) with leader and bassist Todd Coolman, the pianist's absorption of different jazz styles and her own depth shine. She can sound funky like Horace Silver, bluesy like Wynton Kelly, swinging and lyrical like Bill Evans (especially on waltzes). Her early Oscar Peterson influence is there when she subconsciously turns it on. She's Monkish on Monk tunes. But throughout she is always Renee. Check out the duet she plays with Herbie Hancock on her original "Fleur-de-Lis." It's on Renee Rosnes (Blue Note 93561).

"Bell-like, crystal clear, to the point" - Rosnes's own quote about Cedar Walton's playing and compositions precisely describes her own musical personality.

From The Piano Stylist and Jazz Workshop, October-November, 1991