With his fluid style and warmly-distorted sound, guitarist Gilad Hekselman is one of the most sought after musicians in New York today. He’s been tapped as a sideman by everyone from drummer Ari Hoenig to bassists Ben Williams and Esperanza Spalding to multi-reedist Anat Cohen. His solo work has received much critical acclaim, including 2015’s Homes (Jazz Village). He’s sought after by students as well, hoping to learn the secrets of his style—when searching his name on Google, two of the top suggested search terms are “Gilad Hekselman lessons” and “Gilad Hekselman gear.”
This weekend, Hekselman returns to The Jazz Gallery as part of our 2016 Residency Commission series to present new music for his band Zuperoctave. The quartet features some of Hekselman’s closest musical associates—saxophonist Ben Wendel, pianist Shai Maestro, and drummer Kush Abadey—and a lush, plugged-in sound. We caught up with Hekselman by phone to talk about his writing process for the commission, which included some false starts and questioning his musical intuition.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been all over the world in the past few months; where are you now, and where have you been recently?
Gilad Hekselman: I’ve been in New York for about a week—before that, I was touring in Japan and Korea. In Japan, I was a sideman with a saxophone player named Sadao Watanabe, and before that in Korea I did a little tour with my trio. It was my sixth time in Japan and my second time in Korea. I like it there, and would love to go there more.
TJG: Tell me about your commissioned project, Zuperoctave: It’s got Ben Wendel (saxophones), it’s got Shai Maestro (keys), it’s got Kush Abadey (drums). What’s the concept?
GH: The concept is more or less as usual; trying to write some good tunes, and have some good musicians play them. This is a little different because there’s no bass, and we’re going for a more electronic sound. A lot of the compositions are leaning towards that. We’re using some synths, Ben is using some effects, I’m going to use some effects, and Kush is playing some electronic drums.
TJG: When did you decide not to have a bass player?
GH: This project is called Zuperoctave, and I’ve been doing it for a few years with different personnel. That’s part of the idea of the band, to free up the bass a little bit. Sometimes I use a pedal and play bass, sometimes Shai does some bass sounds, or even Ben. Generally speaking, we like to have more flexibility, so we experiment with the bass.
TJG: So how do you write, regarding the low end, knowing that you’ll have that flexibility where anyone can play the bass in the band? Does it change your compositional approach?
GH: A lot of the songs are brand new work that I did for the commission. They have these musicians and instrumentation in mind. I try to imagine a group sound, rather than focusing too much on the bass, or the lack of it. I imagine what the instruments I have can do in that context. Each song is different, as far as the process goes. I find a melody, or some lyrics, a bassline, or something else that works for me—some of them are inspired by my musicians, or musical ideas that remind me of friends. For me, words aren’t really helpful in describing these kinds of musical relationships. You hear it and you know it, but it’s hard to verbalize.
TJG: So how did you begin working with The Jazz Gallery, and when did you get your commission?
GH: I think it all started with Nir Felder, actually. He was talking to Rio about how it would be great to do commission work with a guitar player. Nir, Rio and I worked on the application, then Rio got a grant for it, and that was it. This is my first commission. It’s been cool working to a deadline. The first thing I had in mind was a different project, which eventually fell through. It was originally more vocal music. I had this idea to do music for yoga sequences as well. I’d have a yoga practitioner do a sequence of poses on stage while we play. But that fell through too. Meanwhile, while looking at those ideas, I noticed that a lot of these ideas for Zuperoctave just appeared. I ignored it for a while, trying to work on the other ideas, but honestly feeling a little under-inspired. And then, I talked to my wife, and she asked me to think about whether I was swimming with or against the stream; that’s when I realized I should drop everything and follow the Zuperoctave project, since that’s where my heart was. So that’s what I did. Ever since then, I’ve been writing non-stop.
TJG: That’s not the only project you’re doing; In August, you’re playing at the Red Sea Jazz Festival with Joe Martin and Jeff Ballard. I also see that you recently played with Kathryn Christie and Ari Hoenig, at two different clubs on the same night. You’ve got another trio with Rick Rosato and Jonathan Pinson. How can you have so many projects at once, while continuing to travel and write?
GH: You know, all those people hire me because of who I am and how I play, and want me to express myself. I don’t feel the burden or need to change my musical approach and voice from gig to gig. Having said that, each of those musical settings is slightly different, so you have to find a balance when expressing your thing. You do what the music’s asking for, and try to be a good sideman without sacrificing who you are, yet without letting your ego take over. I’m always trying to do what’s best for the music in the moment. I don’t think of music as challenging. Sure, some things are hard to learn. I’m spending the most time trying to learn the music I’ve written, because I’m writing so much new material in so little time. I’m almost a sideman on my own gig. But it’s fun!
TJG: With all this time on the road and working on new projects, do you have time to listen to music these days? And is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with that you haven’t worked with yet?
GH: Yeah sure—I don’t have a CD that I’m hooked on right now, but I’ve been listening to Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Kieth Jarrett, Miles Davis, the greats. It changes all the time. As far as collaborating, there are plenty of people. I’d love to work with Wayne Shorter at some point, Joe Lovano, Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock, Bill Stewart, the list goes on. I’d also like to do more collaborations with singer-songwriters, like James Blake and Josh Dion, and so many others.
TJG: Anything else you’d like to mention about your upcoming work or commission?
GH: I don’t have any recordings coming out any time soon. Regarding the commission, I’ve got ten songs that are brand new, and I’m looking forward to exploring a new orchestration with a great group of musicians. I have so much gratitude to The Jazz Gallery for this great opportunity, and I’ve never had a deadline before. This is the first time I’ve had to grab inspiration, as opposed to being grabbed by it. Now I know that I can – it’s just a matter of putting your time and energy into composition in a more active way. It’s really taught me a lot, and I’m thankful for the opportunity. Right now I’m going through and printing all my songs. I realized that these songs wouldn’t have been finished, or even written, if it wasn’t for the commission. So it’s something for which I’m really thankful.
TJG: It was great catching up with you. Thank you, Gilad.
GH: Thanks for your time!
Gilad Hekselman Zuperoctave present new work at The Jazz Gallery as part of the 2016 Residency Commission Series on Friday, July 22nd, and Saturday, July 23rd, 2016. The group features Mr. Hekselman on guitar, Ben Wendel on saxophones, Shai Maestro on piano & keyboards, and Kush Abadey on drums & electronic drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.