Gilad Hekselman sat in the merchandise tent after the second of his two appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival and signed CDs for a long line of fans. Almost all of them were young guitarists in college or just out, and they gushed about how Hekselman’s innovations on the instrument were inspiring them to try new things. The 34-year-old Israeli musician took his Sharpie and scrawled, “Keep on playing,” followed by a giant, sweeping “G” and a smaller “HEX” cradled inside the first initial.
The guitarist with the curly dark hair, square jaw and tan shirt had just finished an unaccompanied set on the Storyville Stage inside the Fort Adams Museum. Sitting on a chair with his legs crossed, Hekselman had turned tunes by himself, Victor Young, John Lennon and Thelonious Monk inside out with his ability to surround but never eclipse the melody with a swarm of harmony notes. It was a fresh sound that was bound to stimulate a new generation.
“I don’t get to play solo shows that often,” he said between signing CDs, “though I’d like to do more. When I was preparing for this one, I thought about what I like and don’t like when I’m the listener at a solo set. One thing I don’t like is hearing the same sound for too long. So I wanted to switch things up more often.
“It’s important to listen not just to yourself but also from the audience’s perspective. We musicians have so many things to keep track of—our equipment, the changes—that we often lose track of how we’re perceived. But we play this music for other people, not just for ourselves. With an instrument in your hand, it’s easy to get sucked in, but you’re trying to push air into people’s ears, so you have to put yourself in their place.”
He transformed Ahmad Jamal’s signature tune “Poinciana” by sampling himself and then percussively popping his archtop strings over the loop. On his own “Eyes To See,” he played single-note lines with the pick squeezed between his thumb and forefinger while simultaneously brushing chords with his middle finger and ring finger.
“None of this was arranged,” he added. “I never memorize a particular arrangement like a classical guitarist. I never practice the what; I only practice the how. That way I have options that I can use at any time. I consider my pedals as another instrument that I can also improvise on. It’s important to me that I can play the guitar with or without the pedals, because if you try to cover up your limitations with the pedals, that never works.”
Hekselman’s most recent album is 2015’s Homes (Jazz Village), but he is currently working on two new projects. The acoustic-jazz sound of the previous disc will continue with a trio featuring bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Jonathan Pinson. The other is a threesome called ZuperOctave with Aaron Parks on electric keyboards and Kush Abadey on drums.
The day before at Newport, Hekselman had joined Christian Sands’ regular trio to perform the arrangements from Sands’ fine new album, Reach (Mack Avenue). In this context, Hekselman hardly played any chords at all, relying instead on fast-fingered arpeggios to suggest chords the way a horn player might.
“Gilad and I used to play a lot together with Ben Williams, and we have very compatible styles,” Sands said. “When you’re a pianist playing with a guitarist you have to listen to each other and be open. By that I mean you have to open to musical suggestions; you have to be willing to go in an unplanned direction. Gilad is very open.” DB