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A Before & After Listening Session with Gilad Hekselman

Think you’ve got this guitarist figured out? He’ll show you that you haven’t

Gilad Hekselman
Gilad Hekselman (photo: Josh Goleman)

In line with many resourceful jazz practitioners, Gilad Hekselman responded to the enforced isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic with a turning-lemons-to-lemonade attitude that ultimately eventuated in his new release, Far Star (Edition). It’s an eight-song date, on which Hekselman self-accompanies his guitar with keyboards, bass, whistle, tambourine, body percussion and voice, fleshing out the tracks with contributions from drummers Eric Harland, Ziv Ravitz, Alon Benjamini, and Amir Bresler; keyboardists Shai Maestro and Nomok; violist/violinist Nathan Schram; and bassist Oren Hardy. Throughout the proceedings, the 38-year-old guitarist displays the harmonic sophistication, timbral expansiveness, playful time feel, innate melodicism, and resonant tone that have placed him in the spotlight since he moved from Israel to New York City in 2004.

When COVID struck, Hekselman was in Israel with his wife and toddler son, after a vacation in Southeast Asia. “We got there at the beginning of February, and wound up staying for a year,” he said on a Zoom call from his Brooklyn apartment, two weeks after the birth of his second child. He pointed over his shoulder to one in a row of guitars hanging on the wall of his studio. “I brought that little guy, which you can throw on your back,” he said. “I only allowed myself to play for the family or when I was composing or transcribing, which for me are extensions of one another. I started writing tunes, and by the end of the trip I had something like 23.

“Like the rest of us, I didn’t know how long [the pandemic] would last, so I decided to record the songs as demos, so that, when there was finally a live gig, I could send them to the band. Meanwhile, I got into better ways to mic the guitar amp, better ways to mix, to find space for everything and make transitions work. It got to the point where I’d spend hours and hours every day studying and experimenting and meeting with people who are better producers than me, getting tips, and taking private lessons. Suddenly I had tracks that friends told me sounded good. I decided to go all the way with it—and that was Far Star.

“I got into the notion that I’m not limited to a quartet in a studio, that there’s no limit to what sounds I can imagine when I compose. That opened a whole palette of ideas; my imagination went further and further. What sound can I come up with that I crave? I’ll find the tools to get to that sound. I wanted to create a feeling that just when you think you’ve figured out what the record is, I’m showing you that maybe you haven’t figured it out yet. That’s how that time when the record was made felt to me. Hopefully it doesn’t sound like just another pandemic record.”

It’s evident that Hekselman’s sonic journey has involved extensive self-motivated R&D since guitar entered his life as a nine-year-old in Kfar Saba, a half-hour northeast of Tel Aviv. “There was a guitar around the house, and when a neighbor objected to my playing drums, it was the next instrument down the list,” he said. “A lot of my neighbors were good rock guitar players, shredders, who made me want to play like that. I started to check out progressive rock/fusion—Steve Vai, Joe Satriani—nd I was doing some professional gigs already at a young age.”

But he didn’t get “hooked on jazz” until he entered Tel Aviv’s Thelma Yellin High School, the alma mater of dozens of high-profile Israeli jazzfolk. After graduating high school in 2001, he spent several months in New York, where he began to connect with peers at the nightly jam session at Smalls, whose proprietor Mitch Borden told Hekselman to let him know when he returned to NYC. Hekselman spent the next three years doing “restaurant and function gigs” in Israel, “playing with a lot of musicians who were older and better than me, learning hundreds of songs, just from the recordings by heart, the old school way. I was a complete hard-bop head.” Moving to New York in 2004, he continues, “opened my mind. When you’re younger, you have those agendas that are based on more social things than anything else. Now, all I want to listen to is music that moves me, that has emotion, makes me feel something, whatever the genre.”

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. James Blood Ulmer’s Music Revelation Ensemble featuring Arthur Blythe
“Purity” (In the Name of…, DIW). Ulmer, guitar, composer; Blythe, alto saxophone; Amin Ali, electric bass; Cornell Rochester, drums. Recorded in 1993.

BEFORE: I have no idea what I was just listening to. I liked the composition. It had an Ornette-ish element of the fast swing against a slower melody, and harmonic movement out of a “Lonely Woman” kind of thing. But clearly not Ornette. At moments, the saxophone player almost sounded like Brecker on alto, and it had moments of Marienthal, but dirtier. So I couldn’t place him. The guitar player—I have no clue. I admired his not taking any prisoners—the wildness in his playing. He went for it and then went completely nuts, which I dig. I’ve spent so much time trying to make everything sound so “perfect.” Letting go like that is something that I still have to work on in my own playing.

Is that Robert Johnson on your T-shirt?
Yeah. Wait! That was Robert Johnson?

It was a blues. I’m interested in your relationship to the blues.
I grew up playing a lot of blues, learning all the licks. I love blues. I can’t say that I’m an expert by any means, but it’s a big part of my language. I realized at some point that a lot of my songs are based on the principle of the blues; not the genre, but the form—the call, response, and resolution, this three-part structure. This song was bluesy, but I don’t know if the guitar player necessarily played a bluesy feel on this. It was mostly just going berserk.

Let me see if I can make a wild guess. Maybe Kevin Eubanks? I’m already imagining [seeing in print] “[Waits for two minutes].” No, I don’t know.

AFTER: I have to be honest and tell you and the readers that I am ignorant to all these musicians, sadly to say. I don’t know any of them.

2. Pasquale Grasso
“Parisian Thoroughfare” (Solo: Bud Powell, OKeh). Grasso, guitar; Bud Powell, composer. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: [After hearing the first four bars] I think already know who it is, but let me listen a few more seconds. [Two minutes later] At first I thought it was Pasquale Grasso, but then I started second-guessing myself. I wonder if it’s the kind of thing where you go into the studio and play slightly different. The sound is so similar, and obviously the bebop language has such a flow, which Pasquale does better than pretty much else I know. But something about the use of harmony was a little different from what I know. That’s what made me second-guess myself. But then, I’m trying to place somebody else who maybe has influenced Pasquale, which enters the territory of all these guitar players who I just don’t know that well, because I’m not a big guitar guy. I wouldn’t be able to recognize Herb Ellis. I never went through that phase. I could recognize Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett and Ahmad Jamal, but not so much guitar players. So, I would say it’s not Pasquale, and I don’t know who it is—but definitely an influence on Pasquale.

Before we draw back the curtain, talk a little bit about what the guitarist was doing and what you thought of the performance.
He was playing “Parisian Thoroughfare” by Bud Powell, which I recorded on Homes with Marcus Gilmore and Joe Martin—we played it in 9/4 instead of 4/4. Like I said, to have such flow with the language of bebop is impressive, out of the school of Barry Harris and Bird and Diz. He’s got the guts to go with just a clean tone, straight to the amp. There’s reverb, but I think that might have been a studio reverb; I’m not sure if it was an amp reverb. It takes real courage to do that and do that well.

AFTER: [Laughs] Well, I still stand by it. I love Pasquale. I think he’s one of the great geniuses of the instrument, just an unbelievable player. I’ll just say that the stuff you hear at a club is usually better than the stuff you hear on a recording.

3. Marc Johnson
“The Adventures of Max and Ben” (The Sound of Summer Running, Verve). Bill Frisell, electric guitar, composer; Pat Metheny, electric guitar, Pikasso guitar; Johnson, bass; Joey Baron, drums. Recorded in 1997.

BEFORE: [One minute in] Definitely if it’s not Frisell, then it’s heavily influenced by Frisell. [Waits two more minutes] I mean, it has to be Frisell. Otherwise somebody is being really shameless.

It is Bill Frisell, but we should keep going because there’s more to this than meets the eye.
Okay. It sounds like Kenny Wollesen on drums to me. So unique, how the bass … I think it’s a bass, but maybe it’s a cello … how he doesn’t play any pizzicato so far. It’s all bow so far.

Fantastic. That’s my shit. I don’t know if I heard Tony Scherr play that much bow before, but to me it feels like home. So I would guess it’s a trio with Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen.

It’s not. And it’s not a trio.
You mean that extra stringed instrument was somebody else? It sounded like almost like an electric kora or something. I would be almost convinced that this is a Frisell composition. Something that always strikes me about the way he composes is that it always has this genius balance of, like, meat and potato, but also outer-space shit. Just when you think you know what it’s supposed to be, it takes new harmonic and melodic turns. Just his use of weird notes; all the notes you’d never dare even think about, he just writes them down. It’s so patient. He’s not trying to finish the composition. Many times, you write a song, at some point you feel, “Oh, this feels like a song; I can finish now.” And he keeps writing. It keeps unfolding. He’s letting the composition write itself, in his language, which is fantastic. Really the only thing I can tell you is that it moves me. That felt to me like somebody telling me a part of their life story, and all you need to do is sit there and listen.

Was this a double bass? I think it was double bass. Whoever played bow on this sounds fantastic. That’s something that a lot of jazz bass players can’t do very well. I don’t know if it’s based on just knowledge or my ears, but I know that Bill is also playing with Thomas Morgan and Rudy Royston.

It’s not a recent record.
I see. So go ahead. Tell me. I don’t know.

AFTER: Amazing! I had a feeling for a second and then I let it go again. I should trust my gut. I want to succeed! Now that makes total sense. When that sound entered, I couldn’t quite place what it was, but it was magical. It does sound like a kora. I think Pat’s instrument is based on open strings. You don’t press anything. It plays like a harp.

Was Frisell important in your development?
I had to discover him for myself later on. Obviously in my own world; he’s well discovered. But I only got to him after I got over my bebop head period. But yeah, a big influence. The few times I saw him live completely changed the way I think about how to play music. His sense of patience and space is unique to him.

People often throw Pat at me when they hear my music. He’s somebody who I massively admire, and who’s changed the way jazz guitar is played, whether you’re influenced by him directly or not. When I was growing up, I was more focused on Wes and Kenny Burrell and Grant Green in the guitar world. Then I got into piano and I was really in there, and Coltrane and other saxophonists. So I can’t tell you that I know a ton of Pat’s music, but I admire his playing and his career. Like, how diverse his projects are and how he’s always going for something and how he mastered the art of performance. If you go to a show by Pat, it’s like watching a movie. There’s never a moment where you’re, “Oh, I’m bored.” There’s always something going on. To me, that’s a big, big inspiration.

“All the notes you’d never dare even think about, [Bill Frisell] just writes them down. And he keeps writing. It keeps unfolding.”

4. John Scofield
“It Could Happen to You” (John Scofield, ECM, 2022). Scofield, electric guitar; Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke, composers. Recorded in 2021.

BEFORE: [Laughs] Really? That’s an easy one! I can tell you one of them, for sure, and possibly the other one is the same one. My reaction is that I’m listening to two John Scofields, but let me listen for another two seconds. Yes, I can tell you this is John Scofield playing “It Could Happen to You” with himself looped. I just saw him. We taught a week upstate, the Alternative Guitar Summit Camp. He came as a special guest. He did a solo set that made everybody’s mind explode. And he used a lot of loopers. That was my little hint, because he used some of that. Anybody else doing that, it would be kind of corny—to loop yourself and play on top of it. Somehow Sco makes it work—and more than that. It was so amazing to see him do it. There’s something so human about Sco. He puts it all out there. I really connect to that humanity, and I think that’s why people dig Sco so much. It’s not always polished. It’s actually kind of rough around the edges. But it’s perfect in the sense that there’s so much personality and so much funk in it.

Sco is another person who I actually discovered after I moved to New York. He influenced me very much. I had to teach myself how to be influenced by guitar a little bit more. Growing up, I was trying to sound like all the piano players. I was into Hank Jones and Wynton Kelly and Bud Powell and Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau and Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chick Corea—and basically I did everything I could to try to make their language happen on my guitar. It was a good thing. But then at some point I realized most of the time people probably hire me because they want to hear a guitar player, so I should probably check out some guitar just so I am able to do that as well if I have to.

5. Nir Felder and Oz Noy
“Joyous Lake” (Alternative Guitar Summit: Honoring Pat Martino, Volume 1, HighNote). Felder, Noy, electric guitars; Chulo Gatewood, bass; Tobias Ralph, drums. Recorded in 2021.

BEFORE: The very beginning of the intro sounded like Nir Felder to me. That one guitar. But the rest of it didn’t quite fall into place until I remembered maybe Oz Noy doing a recording with a bunch of guitar players on it, so I thought maybe it’s that. Is this a studio record or a live record? The mix is so weird. I don’t know if it’s just the way it goes through Zoom or something. But [the] other [tracks] sounded good, so I’m not sure if it’s that. Was one of them Nir Felder?

You nailed both of them.
Check that out! It’s from a live gig. Sorry if whoever mixed this is my friend—but that mix is wack. It was a little jammy for my taste, but good music and obviously two incredible players. The drummer shreds. That’s part of what annoyed me about the mix, because the drummer is playing all this stuff but is all the way in the back. I can hardly hear what he’s doing. The drummer sounds like more from the fusion world; I was guessing somebody like Keith Carlock. I don’t know Tobias Ralph. Sounds good.

Do you have any thoughts about Pat Martino? This project is an homage, where everyone is playing a different Pat Martino tune.
One of the masters of the instrument, for sure. But I have to be honest and say I never went through a big Martino phase, or connected to it in a visceral way. But I have a lot of respect for him, that’s for sure.

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.