Guitarist-composers, bandleaders and compulsive hangers, Pete Bernstein and Gilad Hekselman each have left a strong mark on contemporary sound. As proud descendants of a fabled guitar lineage, Hekselman and Bernstein over the years have collaborated with diverse artists, including Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Esperanza Spalding, and Ben Wendel, as well as Joshua Redman, Diana Krall, Nicholas Payton and Dr. Lonnie Smith, respectively. Back on New York City soil after a couple tightly-booked European tours, both artists took a few minutes to discuss playing with and off each other, democratic leadership (in music) and the DNA of their sound.
The Jazz Gallery: Pete, you were just out for a while—exclusively in Europe?
Pete Bernstein: I was all around Europe, starting Moscow, then up through Paris. Did a few stops with Larry Goldings and Bill Stewart. It was fun all around. We had like 15 gigs in 18 days.
PB: Yeah, I guess so. It’s a miracle when a tour is actually put together. It’s really hard to do, a lot of work. Buying tickets, hotel coordinating… The whole idea of how a booking agent does that, it’s kind of amazing. It’s like architecture. And fishing. At the same time. The first part is fishing because you just throw a gig into the water and see who takes the bait, and then you get one big one you try to book around it. There’s an art to it, I think.
TJG: Apt. Do you guys always use the same booking agent for your Europe tours?
PB: Yeah, we’ve been using the same booking agent Helen Kondos. [We’ve been working with her] for about four years. She’s great. She’s very unusual, too, because she’ll send dozens of emails saying, “Okay, do you guy wanna do this to make this flight? The next day you’d have to get up and do this…” She’s very much involved in what our experience will be, which is nice. Most people just try to put [the tour] together and cut corners or save money—they just do whatever. She’s about asking us what we would rather do.
TJG: Well then we should totally give her a shout out in this interview.
PB: Yeah, she’s unusual. A lot of times you look at it on paper and it’s like wow: four days in a row you’re waking up at five in the morning. After a while, you really start to crumble when things are put together in a very sadistic way.
The whole thing is a miracle, but especially the first step, when someone actually wants us to come play for them. And then people come out and see the gig. That’s all miraculous.
TJG: You still find that first part miraculous, after all the years you’ve been out there?
PB: I find it more miraculous than ever now. Gilad, maybe you know the feeling: You get on a couple of airplanes, take a van ride and you’re at this place and you’re like, “Where the fuck are we?” And then people actually come out. It’s amazing.
Gilad Hekselman: I agree. I think too often, especially in some situations that I’ve been in, people take that stuff for granted, but I agree with you.
TJG: Speaking of booking the tour, Gilad you were out with Wendel’s Season’s project for some time.
GH: Yeah, like two and a half weeks. We did a lot of touring in the U.S. with that band, but this [recent] tour was only in Europe.
TJG: That project has a sentimental quality to its vibe and the music.
TJG: …in addition to what I only can imagine are some very challenging charts that Wendel put in front of you.
GH: Sure, yeah. Some of the most challenging I’ve ever had to learn, actually.
TJG: He seems sort of to share leadership, cooperatively, in certain ways for this project, like when you’re all on the bandstand together. What has your experience with the Seasons project been, in terms of that cooperative-leadership approach of his?
GH: There are different levels of it. I think the whole band still feels like he’s leading us, whatever that means. He can definitely make the final calls: how long a tune is, who’s soloing, stuff like that. But generally speaking, yeah, Ben is definitely using the force of the band members that he chose. And I think one of his biggest strengths is that he doesn’t try to completely have the spotlight on him; he actually allows the bandmates to also develop a thing and say what they have to say on stage. That’s a big reason why I love playing in that band. I feel like I can be myself in it.
TJG: I imagine you’re all stretching a lot, too.
GH: Yeah, or not. Many times, because there are so many strong voices, after a tune that had a couple of incredible solos that took you on a journey, maybe the best choice at that point is to put a little vibe on something and then let it go. Many times, that’s what people [in the band] end up doing, too. It’s a great team of musicians that I think can really see the bigger picture of the music, which is something that inspires me to be a part of and teaches me how to do that, too.
TJG: As long as we’re talking about big pictures of the music, I’d be remiss, Pete, if we didn’t mention the very special anniversary you recently celebrated with your two soul brothers Bill Stewart and Larry Goldings.
PB: The trio, yeah. We’ve been playing like 30 years as a band. It’s not like we’ve been up and down the road for 30 years; there are some years in there where we did like four gigs or something. But still, just to have the association go that far back is nice. It’s kind of a sobering thing, meaning we must be old. We’ve been playing for 30 years, and we didn’t start when we were four, so… We were in our early 20s, so it just kinda shows that we’ve spent most of our musical lives with this connection to each other and we’re so lucky that it’s still able to happen.
GH: Not to make you feel old, but just for the record, that’s one of the bands that I grew up listening to and admiring before moving to New York. I moved to New York 15 years ago, and [the trio] had already been one of my influences at that point.
TJG: I hear that a lot during interviews.
PB: Well thank you. You know, the stuff that Gilad was saying about band dynamic, one person having the final say in ways—really it’s more about how you use the personalities of the people involved. That’s the challenge of any group in a social situation, where they’re supposed to be themselves, but they’re supposed to be part of the bigger picture. You’re presenting something to the audience that is a cooperative thing. So with the trio, we just kind of spent the first few years not really having a leader. I’d get a record date and call those guys so then that was my date, then Larry wound up getting a contract at Warner Brothers, so we did some records that were under his name. We didn’t have a leader and then we kind of found that we didn’t need a leader. We just kind of put the set together ourselves and decide what to play.
Larry likes to talk, so we let him talk. And that’s cool. He doesn’t say, “This is what we’re gonna play tonight.” It’s always like, “What do you guys feel like?” And more and more, actually on this last tour with some differing results, we didn’t call a set and just tried to hear the next direction. Sometimes it worked great in a club or a more casual place, but there were a couple sets where it felt like, “We shoulda had a little bit of a plan.” But it’s all good. And I think what people see is just that: something democratic at work. And it sounds like that’s the kind of leader that Ben is, which is the best way—in some way directing it, but not subjugating people at all—really letting their voices come and letting them feel that they’re there to be themselves.
GH: I think that’s the only kind of situation, at this point, that I want to be a part of. I want people who want me to be there for that—to say what I gotta say—otherwise, why do you want me there?
TJG: So I’m thinking a lot of listeners are going to see this gig flyer and think, “Here are two guys whose sounds are more than distinctly different from one another.” I’d go so far as to say your first names, alone, conjure a very specific sound in many people’s minds. In distinct but equally compelling ways, people check you out again and again because they’re wondering, “What’s he gonna do next?” In playing together, what have you discovered are some of your similarities or what similar tendencies have you noticed you share?
GH: Yeah, there’s not a lot of searching to be done. I’ll just admit it: Pete has always been one of my biggest influences. At least to my ears, he’s one of the best jazz guitar players ever to be on this planet. His playing is a part of my DNA. I grew up listening to it, and checked him out numerous times live. When you say how our sounds couldn’t be [more] different, I can see how literally my choice of sounds—the stuff that I use for pedals—or the musical associations that I make are different. Pete’s playing and also his influences are a part of my musical DNA that I carry around. So to me, it’s different but it’s out of a similar world. I don’t know if Pete agrees with me.
PB: I would agree. I definitely would agree. And thank you for all those nice things that you said. It’s nice when you can listen to somebody and not come out sounding like them. That leads to somebody having their own musical personality. You can think things are cool about somebody’s playing and then adopt the idea, and the end result is completely different because it’s coming through your heart and your mind and your fingers in the end.
I can understand that, generation wise, I was a little bit older than you—10 or 15 years or so, something like that. So I would be someone you would have heard at that kind of [formative] time. But you just steal bits of things from different people and the bouillabaisse in the end is your own. You said you’ve been in New York 15 years; I guess that’s when I met you, back when you were still a student.
PB: Really in not that long of a time, a dozen years, you’ve become one of the voices, one of the new voices, and people are looking to you like, “What’s the next thing?” That inspires me. This guy is doing it right – keeping things creative, building a vocabulary and just an identity – at the same time, still finding different settings to be in. And that’s what it’s about. You inspire me.
GH: Thanks, man.
PB: Gilad, I don’t know if you feel the same way, but for me, anyone who is into playing time, playing melodies, maybe there’s harmony—maybe there’s not, but in most cases, there’s harmony—anyone who’s into form and rhythm and changes, then I think there’s a way to play together, unless you have a completely different concept of all those things. But I think if the rhythmic feeling is close and you can swing, then you can swing together. You don’t have to be playing the same vocabulary. We’re playing the same song. That’s what’s important.
And especially if you’re hearing two of the same instruments, the last thing you wanna hear is people who sound very close to each other. Why have two people there? You could just have one guy be that.
TJG: For all the guitar—let’s call them enthusiasts—out there, I probably should ask you Gilad about your current rig.
GH: How much time do you have?
TJG: Just a few words for the kids.
GH: Man, it’s kind of boring. It’s online [laughs].
TJG: I’m sure listeners are equally excited to hear the rest of the band. Do you guys want to talk about playing with Ben and Eric?
GH: We couldn’t find anybody good, so we opened Craigslist.
PB: We got them out of the union. It came together kind of at the last minute because I thought you were getting the band.
PB: We just couldn’t get it together, so we were lucky to find these two illustrious cats, free and available on short notice. And it worked out great. I’ve never played with them together.
GH: Yeah, I don’t think I have either.
TJG: Gilad, you have played with Eric before.
GH: Yeah a long time ago. It’s been well over a decade, I think. When I first came to New York, we did some gigs with Omer Avital.
TJG: Is there anything you guys would like to add?
PB: Logistics make it impossible to rehearse and perform the suite that I composed for the gig.
PB: But it’s going to be more of an old-fashioned pickup gig. We’ll find some tunes that we all know, and just kind of play and relax and listen to each other.
GH: I’m in enough situations where things are very serious and constructed. Sometimes it’s nice to just come up with it on the spot.
PB: That said, I would like to play some of your tunes, actually think about it and work out some nice little Allman Brothers two-guitar lead.
GH: We’ll do “Hotel California.”
PB: We should do it. What’s that Steely Dan tune with the great double lead? “Reelin’ in the Years.”
GH: I’ll bring my leather pants.
Peter Bernstein and Gilad Hekselman play The Jazz Gallery on Saturday August 3, 2019. The group features Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Hekselman on guitar, Ben Street on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.