Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

January 04, 2021


The sound of three huge individual talents coming together to create something that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

Will Vinson / Gilad Hekselman / Antonio Sanchez

“Trio Grande”

(Whirlwind Recordings – WR4767)

Will Vinson – alto & soprano saxophones, electric piano, Gilad Hekselman – guitars, Antonio Sanchez – drums

“Trio Grande”, a title surely destined to become a band name, features an international ‘supergroup’  comprised of three celebrated musicians now resident in New York City.

All are bandleaders in their own right and this release probably appears on Whirlwind thanks to Vinson’s ongoing relationship with the label. The British born alto saxophonist moved to the ‘Big Apple’ in 1999 and has been resident in the city ever since, working and recording with some of New York’s leading jazz musicians. He has also continued to collaborate with musicians based in the UK, among them Whirlwind label mates bassist Euan Burton and pianist Tom Gibbs. Vinson’s previous album for Whirlwind as a leader was the excellent “Four Forty One”, released in January 2020, which saw him working with five different piano trios. Review here;

Guitarist Gilad Hekselman was born in Israel, but like Vinson is a long time resident of New York City, having moved there to study at the NY  School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Following graduation Hekselman decided to stay on, leading his own trios and quartets and establishing himself on the scene with such albums as “Splitlife” (2006), “Words Unspoken” (2008), “Hearts Wide Open” (2010), “This Just In” (2013), “Homes” (2015) “Ask For Chaos” (2018) and “Further Chaos” (2019). The two ‘Chaos’ albums feature Hekselman leading two different groups, the first a conventional ‘jazz’ trio, the second a trio exploring more contemporary electronic musical developments.
Back in 2015 I was fortunate enough to witness a superb performance by Hekselman and his trio, with Joe Martin on bass and Jeff Ballard at the drums, at Dempsey’s in Cardiff. Review here;

The Mexican-American drummer Antonio Sanchez is arguably the best known musician of the three, thanks in part to his eighteen year tenure as the drummer of choice of jazz guitar superstar Pat Metheny. Sanchez has appeared with Metheny on nine albums and in a variety of instrumental formats, but he is also a composer and bandleader in his own right with eight album as a leader to his credit. He composed and performed the score for the 2014 film “Birdman”, which won him several award nominations. I have been fortunate enough to witness Sanchez performing with Metheny on a number of occasions, and also enjoyed a highly charged performance by his own Migration ensemble at The Jazz Café as part of the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival.

Vinson, Hekselman and Sanchez first came together at the NYC jazz venue Cordelia Street Café and found that the bass-less trio format stimulated their individual and creative impulses. The trio quickly established an impressive rapport that transcended their wide range of influences, as Vinson explains;
 ‘We’re all grounded in jazz but all of us are also looking for other sounds and influences to bring in: that’s what we have in common, and what sets us apart is that all our sounds and influences are so different!’. 

The trio made their recorded début in 2018 with “It’s Alright With Three”, an album released under Vinson’s name on the Criss Cross label. That album featured a mix of jazz standards and Vinson originals, but this latest release represents a far more democratic and interactive effort, with the trio establishing a more collective group identity.

All three musicians bring compositions to the table for this new recording, with Vinson contributing two tunes and Hekselman and Sanchez three each. For a bass-less group the trio’s sound is surprisingly robust and muscular, thanks in part to the dynamism of Sanchez’s drumming, but also due to a surprisingly powerful showing from the more reserved Hekselman, who channels something of the spirit of his own “Chaos” recordings into these performances.

Things commence with the Sanchez composition “Northbound”, with the combination of colourful polyrhythmic drumming and Hekselman’s low register guitar riffery providing the rhythmic interest as Vinson soars and wails on alto. The ongoing guitar and drum dialogue is a consistent source of fascination, with the composer featuring particularly prominently on an opener that combines elements of jazz and rock and which positively bristles with energy, attitude and intention. There’s also the sense that the album version is an edit of an even longer performance, a sign of this trio’s improvisatory inclinations.

Hekselman’s “Elli Yeled Tov” draws upon Israeli folklore for inspiration. It’s a celebratory piece that features the sounds of hand clapping, the rhythmic sounds of dampened guitar strings and the joyous dancing of Vinson’s alto sax. The peeling of the composer’s guitar has evoked comparisons with the West African sounds of Lionel Loueke, while Sanchez delivers a virtuoso performance on drums and percussion, there’s just so much going on rhythmically. The vitality of the performance is irresistible and can’t help but bring a smile to the face of the listener.

Vinson makes his compositional début with the gently brooding “Overkampf”, which, despite its title summons up images of the rolling plains of America’s Mid West, there’s something of a touch of Bill Frisell about it. Hekselman’s guitar soars and spirals with a choked intensity above a loping drum groove, while Vinson himself provides an underpinning electric piano motif. The composer also features on soprano sax, keening incisively above an increasingly powerful drum groove and an enveloping guitar wall.

Also from Vinson’s pen comes “Upside”, a tune that first appeared on his 2016 quintet release “Perfectly Out Of Place” (5Passion Records). Introduced by Sanchez at the drums and with Vinson again doubling on electric piano the piece exudes a quiet confidence and an elegant, insouciant swing that almost shades into an odd meter funk at times. Hekselman mixes a conventional jazz guitar sound with more modernistic elements as he shares the solos with Vinson’s hard edged and garrulous alto.

“Scoville” represents Hekselman’s homage to fellow guitarist John Scofield and his playing has a decidedly Scofield quality about it, as chunky riffs merge with blues inflections and the trio as a whole enter into ‘jam band’ mode. Both Hekselman and Vinson take the chance to stretch out as the dynamic Sanchez provides the necessary rhythmic impetus with a virtuoso performance behind the kit, one that culminates in his own explosive drum feature, accompanied by squalling sax and over-driven guitar.

The drummer’s own “Gocta” combines rhythmic sophistication with raw power and an epic vision. Unfolding over the course of nine minutes the piece is a tour de force, driven by the composer’s complex but dynamic drumming and featuring wailing saxophone and clangorous electric guitar – it’s as close as I’ve heard the mildly spoken Hekselman get to heavy metal. This is followed by a more freely structured section that finds Sanchez in dialogue with Vinson’s sax as Hekselman adds shadowy, sometimes abrasive,  guitar effects. Eventually the drums effectively drop out, leading to an atmospheric final section featuring heavily treated and manipulated instrumental sounds, plus the use of sampled voices. There is, however, little let up in the overall intensity. It all makes for a compelling musical and sonic journey.

Also written by Sanchez “Firenze” is a composition that the drummer first recorded with saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci. It’s another nine minute plus epic, but is generally softer in mood and more conventionally jazz like in style, at least initially. It unfolds slowly, building from the patter of the composer’s hand drums through a gently smouldering alto sax solo from Vinson, which gradually grows in terms of intensity, invention and fluency. Sanchez’s drums then provide the link into the next part of the tune, with Vinson carrying on where he left off. The final passage sees the music taking on an increasingly, trance like, almost mantric quality as the music builds towards a climax, with Hekselman unleashing an increasingly assertive arsenal of guitar effects. Eventually the energy levels peak and the music fades away once more, exuding an almost spiritual sense of mystery.

It’s left to Hekselman’s ballad “Will You Let It” to close the CD version of the album. The sound of subtly treated electric guitar opens the piece, joined in dialogue by alto sax and augmented by the rumble of mallets and the swish of cymbals. The emphasis here is on beauty and a reined in intensity as Hekselman and an increasingly incisive Vinson continue to complement each other, skilfully shadowed by the excellent Sanchez.

I’ve only heard the CD but the vinyl version, a double album, also includes three bonus tracks, these being another Vinson original, plus interpretations of “Silence” by Charlie Haden and the John Lennon song “Jealous Guy”. These represent intriguing propositions, so the vinyl is the optimum package to get.

In the meantime the quality of the music on the CD and digital releases ensures that these are also highly recommended. Contrasting, but highly intelligent and sophisticated compositions, combined with an adventurous spirit and some truly virtuoso playing ensures that “Trio Grande” is a hugely exciting prospect, the sound of three huge individual talents coming together to create something that is even greater than the sum of its parts. This is an all star trio that has cohered to make an impressive and exciting collective statement, and it would be nice if they could follow this with some live performances some time in 2021.


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