by Ian Mann
April 05, 2015
A highly interactive trio with a strong group identity. The softly spoken Hekselman, that most modest of guitar heroes, is a force to be reckoned with in the world of contemporary jazz.
Gilad Hekselman Trio, Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 01/04/2015.
In the six or so years that I’ve been a fairly regular visitor to Dempsey’s I don’t think I’ve ever seen the “House Full” signs up before, not even last year when an all star band co-led by American trumpeter Jason Palmer and French pianist Cedric Hanriot and featuring saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Clarence Penn packed out the place.
Instead the honour for the first official sell out that I’ve witnessed at Dempsey’s goes to guitarist Gilad Hekselman who was leading a stellar trio featuring rising star bassist Joe Martin and drumming giant Jeff Ballard. This was one of only two UK dates featuring this trio, the other had occurred the night before at The Vortex in London, although Hekselman was also due to perform a solo show in Birmingham on April 3rd.
Originally from Israel Hekselman moved to New York in 2004, initially to study at the city’s School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. After graduating in 2008 he decided to stay on and has since made a considerable impression on New York’s famously competitive jazz scene, performing with many of the city’s most illustrious jazz musicians and at its most prestigious jazz venues. Heskelman’s list of associates and collaborators reads like a who’s who of contemporary American jazz.
To date Hekselman has recorded four albums as a leader, “Splitlife” (2006), “Words Unspoken” (2008), “Hearts Wide Open” (2010) and “This Just In” (2013). From the start the bass chair has been filled by Joe Martin with Marcus Gilmore the drummer of choice for the three most recent albums. Hekselman’s preferred instrumental configuration is the trio but his records often include guest appearances by saxophonists, Joel Frahm on “Words Unspoken” and the peerless Mark Turner on the two most recent releases.
That Hekselman was in Cardiff, and indeed the UK, at all was largely thanks to the efforts of Tom Ollendorff, a student on the Jazz Course at the nearby Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. A highly talented guitarist himself Ollendorff has studied under the tutelage of Hekselman, presumably via the medium of skype or some other form of modern computer technology. Ollendorff suggested that Hekselman came to play in the UK, the latter agreed, and Ollendorff then put the wheels into motion, organising many of the logistics of the visit. It was thus a considerable triumph for Ollendorff to get Hekselman to Cardiff and the gig represented something of a coup for Dempsey’s. It seemed that the whole of the Jazz faculty at RWCMD was in attendance along with more experienced South Wales based musicians such as bassist Aidan Thorne and drummer Mark O’ Connor, two recognisable faces in the unprecedentedly large audience. A word here for Ollendorff’s own imaginative playing which I’ve enjoyed in the context of Thorne’s “intelligent fusion” group Duski, which also features O’Connor - young Tom is definitely a name to watch for in the future.
Turning now to the music of Mr Hekselman. Prior to the performance there had been a palpable air of expectation around the club. I’ve never seen Dempsey’s so full a good half an hour before the scheduled start of the performance. Eventually the three musicians picked their way through the expectant crowd and took up their positions. After a prolonged pause Hekselman began to play, quietly, almost subliminally at first. He was subsequently joined by the atmospheric patter of Ballard’s hand drumming and finally Martin’s supportive bass. It was Martin who took the first solo, his dexterous playing joined in dialogue by Ballard’s hand drumming and underscored by Hekselman’s subtle comping. It was obvious from the start that this was a highly interactive trio with a strong group identity. Hekselman and Martin go back a long way and although Gilmore has appeared on the albums the guitarist’s rapport with Ballard was immediately obvious. Hekselman’s own solo demonstrated his purity of tone and astonishing technique. He favours a clean sound very much in the orthodox jazz guitar tradition but his chording is imaginative and harmonically adventurous and he is a supremely fluent improviser. Hekselman’s fingers seemed almost prehensile as he formed chord shapes that forced jaws to drop all around the room, the man has chops to burn but for all his skills is a resolutely undemonstrative performer. This modesty extended to his tune announcements, which were either softly spoken or else non existent. He’s a very different character to his compatriot and namesake Mr. Atzmon. I believe this first piece was “March Of The Sad Ones” from the “This Just In” album.
Hekselman is a sit down guitarist and in a packed room I couldn’t see what he was doing at first so I vacated my seat and decided to stand. The next item was a segue of the tune “Breathless” from Hekselman’s first album and the new, and as yet unrecorded, “Verona”. The musician Hekselman gets compared to most frequently is inevitably Pat Metheny and there was something of Metheny’s innate tunefulness here. Both guitarists share a distinctive purity of tone plus flawless techniques and both exhibit great melodic sensibilities as composers. Here Martin shared solo duties with the leader, almost caressing his bass like a lover as he soloed melodically above Hekselman’s guitar arpeggios.
Guitar and bass intertwined delightfully with the subtle backing of brushed drums on a beautiful interpretation of Jerome Kern’s “Long Ago And Far Away” which served notice that for all his adventurousness Hekselman is also a fine player of standards.
The first set closed with a new tune, a piece that Hekselman described as being “a love song to music” entitled “Doremi Fasola”, needless to say it sounded nothing like Hawkwind! With its simple, song like melody over a sparse drum groove it actually reminded me of Metheny’s “Last Train Home” in that you could actually whistle it, something the trio demonstrated by doing just that. There’s also an outbreak of group whistling on the album “Hearts Wide Open” so this is clearly something that Hekselman likes to do, and tonight it was both charming and unexpected.
The second set began with the trio improvising on a Herbie Hancock tune. Rather shamefully I didn’t make a note of the title and now I can’t remember what it was! Hopefully someone out there will enlighten me. In any event the ears of the three musicians were as well attuned as ever with excellent solos from Hekselman and Martin and with a thrilling series of exchanges between Hekselman and Ballard. The drummer has played with jazz mega stars such as Brad Mehldau and Pat Metheny and my previous sightings of him have been in concert halls in London and Bristol so it was a rare pleasure to watch him tonight in such an intimate club environment.
The interplay between guitar and drums was also a feature of the following piece, a harder edged tune that saw quiet man Hekselman upping the wattage and almost rocking out at times. I’m not sure if Ballard is a permanent replacement for Gilmore but the rapport between him and Hekselman was highly developed with both men taking an obvious delight in their playing. The smiles on their faces after a particularly daring and vigorous set of exchanges was a joy to behold.
The next item, a ballad, was mistaken by some listeners for a Pat Metheny tune. It’s a tribute to Hekselman’s melodic sense that this misconception occurred, for this was a tune that Metheny himself would have been proud of. I think I’m right in believing that it was “Flower” from the “Hearts Wide Open” album. In any event it included wonderfully melodic solos from Hekselman and Martin, probably the bassist’s most impressive feature of the night. And it all seemed delightfully apposite that former Metheny associate Ballard should be behind the drums.
The Metheny comparisons kept coming as the next piece, again unannounced , developed from a hand clapped intro in the manner of Metheny’s composition “First Circle”. However as bass and hand drums were added to the equation the music began to take on a life of its own with subsequent solos coming from Hekselman and Martin with the guitarist’s playing again exhibiting a strong rock influence.
The inevitable encore was introduced by the irrepressible Ballard at the drums and was the most obviously bebop influenced item of the evening with all three musicians taking a final opportunity to display their astonishing chops both as soloists and also as a collective with a series of dazzling three way instrumental conversations.
I’ll admit to knowing precious little about Gilad Hekselman before this evening. However I left as a definite fan and treated myself to a copy of the “Hearts Wide Open” album which more than delivers on the promise exhibited by this live performance with Mark Turner also making a substantial contribution on four of the album’s ten tracks.
The Dempsey’s crowd clearly delighted in this brilliant music making and the softly spoken Hekselman, that most modest of guitar heroes, made a host of new converts. I don’t like to labour the Metheny point too much but Pat’s fans will also love this guy. Hekselman has something of Metheny’s orthodox jazz guitar sound (he doesn’t venture into the world of the synclavier and other devices) and also possesses a similarly strong melodic sense and compositional ability plus a phenomenal technique. On the evidence of tonight’s performance plus the “Hearts Wide Open” recording he’s a force to be reckoned with in the world of contemporary jazz. We were privileged to be able to watch him in such an intimate environment in Cardiff and it is to be hoped that he will now begin to visit the UK more frequently.
From Gilad Hekselman via Facebook;
Thank you Ian Mann of The Jazz Mann for the great review of our show in Cardiff!