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Gilad Hekselman is one of the most visible next-generation standard bearers for the Israeli jazz movement that hit the U.S. a decade ago.
Although rock, pop and South American music were his preferred listening genres during his formative years in Kfar Saba, Israel, Hekselman was smitten by jazz as a 15-year-old high school student. One of his favorite pastimes was sharing his discoveries of standards with a circle of friends. He eventually built a book of tunes by listening to recordings and transcribing them.
By the time he moved to New York in 2004 to pursue guitar studies in The New School’s jazz and contemporary performance program, Hekselman was already an accomplished guitarist with a dozen years of playing experience under his belt. Now 32, his resume includes gigs with saxophonist Chris Potter and guitarist John Scofield, as well as fellow Israelis like clarinetist Anat Cohen.
Hekselman’s new album, Homes (Jazz Village), is his fifth as a leader. It showcases his fine, transparent tone and light touch on his custom-made Victor Baker semi-hollowbody archtop. On the album, he’s backed by longtime sidemen Joe Martin on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums for a set of mostly original tunes.
In a DownBeat interview, the soft-spoken guitarist opened up about his music and his role as a leading figure for Israeli jazz.
DownBeat: One of your distinguishing traits as a guitarist is your ability to play delicately and be intensely intimate with the audience. Is that something you’ve strived to create?
Gilad Hekselman: I definitely love low dynamics. Instead of constantly shouting in the listener’s ear, you are inviting them in to listen closely. It’s also nice to play loud sometimes, but there’s less attention to detail. You can’t really hear all the details because there’s a lot of sound coming at you.
A lot of my heroes are people who can play softly, like Keith Jarrett. I like a lot of vocalists, so when you hear vocalists, you want to hear all the textures and the different phrasing things they are doing. You can’t hear that if everybody else is playing loud.
Would you say that good use of dynamics is technically difficult to achieve for some players?
When someone plays loud all the time, I don’t consider that great technique. Anybody who plays drums will tell you that the hardest thing in the world to do is to play accurately when you are playing really soft.
Even when you play uptempo, your touch is very light, even feathery. The listener almost isn’t aware of the pick on the guitar. How do you do that?
Where I come from there are more [working] piano players and saxophone players, so a lot of the sound I’m trying to achieve is very legato. Practicing is part of it. But it’s also the way I set up my guitar—I have the action very low but with really thick strings, so I can hit them pretty hard with my left hand without making a [hard] sound. I want every note to have its own attack and its own volume. That’s how you get a lot of inner rhythms within the phrase.
What’s your practice regimen like?
It’s very flexible. I always have a list of things that I want to be better at. Then I prioritize them. If I have only an hour, maybe I’ll choose the first two on the list. But the list always changes. I am extremely critical. Especially after I moved to New York, I used to give myself a hard time and say, “You suck.” And as I got older, I turned it into something more positive. It became: “If you suck at this, here’s how you can make that better.”
If you could have 20 minutes to pick the brain of any musician from any era, who would it be?
I truly would like to spend some time with John Coltrane. I would ask him to play a tune and then maybe give me some critique about my playing. And then I would ask him what he’s working on harmonically because Coltrane was always working on some great stuff harmonically. What I really would like to know is what he hears when he hears me, and what he thinks could be better.
To what extent have you been influenced by Middle Eastern music traditions?
It’s a part of my language and when I have to tap into it, it exists in a pretty natural way. But in Israel there are a lot of other types of music besides Middle Eastern. What I listened to mostly as a kid, even if it was Israeli music, it was rock-influenced or pop-influenced or even South American- or Brazilian-influenced. A lot of great Israeli rock artists brought a lot of South American music to Israel. It was a big influence on the scene in the ’70s and ’80s.
How would you describe the Israeli approach to creating jazz?
A lot of Israeli musicians are more interested in exploring what they have to bring from their background to jazz. It’s not so much about sounding exactly like music from America in the ’60s or the ’40s. It’s more about checking out that music a lot. And I can tell you that people in Israel take tradition very seriously. In Israel, people are expressing their roots and those sounds they heard as kids.
What’s your opinion on the increasing homogenization of jazz in America? Is regionalization still prominent abroad?
It’s a global village. Because of technology, anybody anywhere can get a record from anywhere within seconds. You can check out an artist and know what they’re about on YouTube for free. You’re not so limited to your area in terms of what you listen to. On the other hand, sometimes you can still hear if music is from New Orleans or if it’s from Israel—you can hear the subtleties. It’s a beautiful thing, and I hope it stays that way. DB
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