A tale of two musicians

Israeli jazz guitarist Gilad Hekselman returns from New York for a Jerusalem show

GILAD HEKSELMAN – Israeli guitarist has established himself in New York.  (photo credit: JOE MARTIN)
GILAD HEKSELMAN – Israeli guitarist has established himself in New York.
(photo credit: JOE MARTIN)
 Our jazz guys and gals have been doing us, and themselves, proud across the globe for some years now. On any given day, Israeli artists can be found performing at all kinds of festivals and at venues of varying sizes and degrees of prestige, and giving a creditable account of themselves.
Gilad Hekselman has been at the forefront of that sterling work for over a decade now. The 36-year-old guitarist has been resident in New York for 15 years, and is currently here to spend time with his extended family and strut some of his artistry around the country. He has already enjoyed a couple of gigs in Tel Aviv, and this Tuesday will put in a guest appearance at Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine, adding some of his polished skills to a trio led by bassist Tal Gamlieli.
I caught Hekselman in action at the fabled Vienna jazz club, Porgy & Bess, last month, when he joined American saxophonist Chris Potter and irrepressible Hungarian drummer-vocalist Ferenc Nemeth. The guitarist put in a quality stint, and was duly applauded by the packed audience.
Hekselman is no slouch when it comes to producing recorded material either. Since his debut album, Splitlife, in 2006, he has put out a further six releases, with the latest, Further Chaos, seeing the light of day in May. In fact it is an EP, and follows swiftly on the heels of Ask for Chaos.
“Actually, Further Chaos is really all sorts of takes that didn’t make it onto last year’s album,” the guitarist explains.
The two records in question feature predominantly original charts, but there are also singular readings of older works.
“There are also some covers in there,” notes Hekselman. “There is ‘Teen Town’ by [late iconic bassist] Jaco Pastorius, there’s part of ‘Hanof’ (The View) by [celebrated Israeli singer-songwriter] Matti Caspi, and [1930 jazz standard] ‘Body & Soul.’”
The Caspi inclusion is intriguing and provides yet another example of how our jazz artists have begun dipping into the Israeli Songbook, in addition to offering new versions of tried and tested American-produced jazz numbers of yesteryear. That tendency to feed off local vibes has gained momentum over the last decade or so, with the likes of Paris-based pianist Yaron Herman, Germany-based ivory tickler Omer Klein and Cohen siblings saxophonists Anat and Yuval, and trumpeter Avishai, all mining the rich seam of Israeli musical nuggets from the last half century and more to fuel their jazzy endeavors.
Hekselman sees the progression into Israeli music as a natural development, adding that playing a popular melody can help to draw in people hovering in the margins. “The reason why a standard is effective is because you grew up with it. Not always but often, the reason why you enjoy listening to something is because it sounds a little familiar.” That can be crucial to making something more listener-friendly, when the discipline in question has a strong improvisational element to it.
HEKSELMAN IS alert to the need to communicate with his audience. “Jazz, particularly in my style of playing, can be a little too abstract for a lot of people. So when you have something to identify with, a melody you know well, or a harmony structure which is pleasant to your ear because you grew up with it, that makes it easier to understand the rest. Suddenly, the improvisation has a context. It’s not something out there for you.”
Despite his tendency to play in and around the melodic baseline – as any self-respecting jazz musician should do – Hekselman says he never strays too far away from the original intent. “I like to play songs with a lot of respect for the melody. I improvise, but I always keep the tune in mind.”
He has had plenty of inspiring forebears to help show him the way to balance sonic flights of fancy with the source musical anchor. “Miles Davis, for example, one of the many things he did was that, based on his deep knowledge of the original melody, he was able to play several notes away from it but still expressed the whole weight of the melody in them. That’s an example of how you can do something abstract but still convey the melody.”
Part of the musician’s trick is to wend his way along a story line, and take his audience with him, regardless of how far he roams from the original score. Hekselman is pretty adept at spinning musical yarns, which means he can also go out on several creative limbs while keeping his listeners on board.
It is, he feels, a rare gift. “The storytellers are the musicians I like to listen to,” he says. “There are artists who have great harmonic control and have a really good sound, and all of that is important, but I don’t think there are many who really know how to tell a story through their music. I always go back to them myself.”
Hekselman first laid his infant hands on a guitar at the age of nine, although he’d already gained a modicum of experience in producing musical sounds. “I’d already started on piano, and I kept both of them going for a while.”
It quickly transpired that the stringed instrument was the natural choice. “Things went really quickly for me on guitar,” he recalls. “I returned to the piano, for a while, at the age of 12, but the guitar was my forte.”
In fact, he had his heart set on making much more noise, but social niceties got in the way. “I wanted to play the drums, but we had a neighbor who objected strongly to that,” Hekselman laughs.
Musicians who start out on one instrument and eventually shift their attention to another often say that their original choice informs the way they approach their current means of music making. Hekselman goes along with that. “There are three main things that influence the way I play the guitar. There are pianists like Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Brad Mehldau and others like that, like Keith Jarrett. And I think about drummers when I play. And I also think about vocalists. Before there were all these musical instruments, people sang.”
Not that he has any designs in that particular direction. “I don’t have any natural talent for singing, so I let that go,” he chuckles.
Lack of requisite gifts notwithstanding, he has gleaned plenty from that area of music. “I have learned from vocalists about phrasing, for example. That is very important to what I do.”
Hekselman didn’t exactly start out with jazz coursing through his young veins.
“I played in a lot of rock groups to begin with, before I went to Thelma Yellin,” he notes, referencing the arts high school in Givatayim. “I was really into rock. I played at all kinds of clubs, and even on TV. Rock definitely comes into what I do today.”
Not that you would know it at the outset. Hekselman is a master of crafting delicate statements, and seems to be able to tell his story without raising his voice. But he can also work up a good head of steam, when his rock underpinning comes through loud and clear.
The confluence with the Gamlieli Trio promises manifold lines of creative attack and some meandering story lines into the bargain.
For tickets and more information: https://yellowsubmarine.org.il