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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Album art courtesy of Criss Cross Records

With his new record It’s Alright With Three (Criss Cross), saxophonist and composer Will Vinson presents guitarist Gilad Hekselman and drummer Antonio Sanchez in a fresh, dynamic, bass-less trio setting. Each of the three musicians shines in his own way, exploring a balance of originals and standards with open interplay and spontaneity (and as to be expected, much effect pedal wizardry from Hekselman).

Born in London and based in New York, Will Vinson has been featured on stages around the world as a bandleader as well as with artists from Ari Hoenig, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Miguel Zenón to Sufjan Stevens, Sean Lennon, and Rufus Wainwright. Vinson is also a member of the acclaimed OWL Trio, alongside guitarist Lage Lund and bassist Orlando Le Fleming. In a recent phone conversation, Vinson had much to say on the joys and constraints of making his new record on a tight timetable with a brand-new trio.

The Jazz Gallery: Your upcoming performance at The Jazz Gallery is the release show for this album. How much playing had you done with Gilad and Antonio before this project?

Will Vinson: Individually, quite a lot over the last several years. In this trio configuration, about ninety minutes [laughs]. We did a short rehearsal the day before the recording, and that was it. I’d done some gigs with Antonio’s band, he’d done some gigs with mine. The same with Gilad, who I met playing with Ari Hoenig not long after Gilad moved to New York. I don’t think Gilad and I had ever played on a record together, though Antonio and I appeared on Orlando Le Fleming’s first record. In New York, we all have our projects, we all gravitate toward doing a certain thing, but there’s a whole other cast of musicians who we each occasionally play with: Often, you can go years without properly collaborating with an artist.

The impetus with this record was getting a call from producer Gerry Teekens from the Criss Cross label. The way that Criss Cross often operates is that they call you at relatively short notice to do a record, and you come up with your personnel. Normally for a record, you have a project in mind and you try to make it work, but with Criss Cross, it works the other way around. So of course, given an opportunity like that, why not record with people I wouldn’t otherwise have? At the time I got the call from Criss Cross, I was having a parallel idea to do a bass-less trio record. Gilad clearly seemed the person for that, and I’d wanted to record with both Antonio and Gilad for a while. Miraculously, they were both available at six-weeks’ notice, so I took that as a sign. Well, as a sign of their availability, anyway [laughs].

TJG: Clearly, it was destined to be! Tell me about the balance of originals and standards on the album.

WV: One of the things I like about this short-notice recording session is that you don’t have endless months to ponder what you’d do on your next project. Instead, it’s much more spontaneous. I did write one tune for the record, which is called “The Pines.” We dug out an old tune from a record I’d made a long time ago, and in general, I just thought of tunes that would be fun to play in this context. Without a bassist, there are limitations and opportunities in trying to bring out the right aspects of a trio like that. I definitely wanted to have originals, but I wanted us to play in a way that was relatively free and unselfconscious, to have a good time. Between the bass-less constraint and the short timeline, those limits dictated to a large extent the material we played.

TJG: You said you were looking for tunes that would work particularly well without bass. What does that mean to you?

WV: Good question. To start, you want to be able to resist the temptation to break into swing, because you can’t really do that in the same way without a bass player. I was looking for tunes that had a certain kind of balance of harmonic movement and stasis. For example, “It’s Alright With Me,” which is a tune I rarely play, sort of hangs out. It has subtle movement within the same harmonic plane. There’s not the same need for a bass player holding things down, and you can be open and loose with it. That’s why I chose it. That’s an example of something that I thought would work in that kind of situation.

It was hard to get away from the Lovano/Frisell/Motian sound in my head, which is such a powerful presence of what a saxophone/guitar/drum trio sounds like. Of course, on this record, we don’t sound anything like them at all. But you don’t really know until you get in the room. A lot of it came down to Gilad: We each played an equal role, to an extent, but for Gilad the pressure was on, because he didn’t have a bass player. The sound of the ensemble, the way it worked, was largely down to him and his approach to the music.

TJG: It’s interesting that the three of you comprise the trio, but you said “Gilad didn’t have a bass player.”

WB: Hah. I suppose what I mean is that there’s added responsibility: He’s the sole harmonic player in the rhythm section. He’s taking on that section of the orchestra, so to speak, so he’s got that pressure in a way that we don’t. For me, it’s only fun [laughs]. I had a really good time with the change of texture. I’m pretty sure Gilad had a good time too, it’s just he has the added harmonic responsibility.

TJG: Speaking of Gilad sounding like an orchestra, he sounds so full and multifaceted on “Resting Jazz Face,” like an organ, or something beyond.

WV: Right. That was a tune where his solo features a loop that he laid down. Then he really goes for it. We did that on a couple of tunes. He has such great control of that aspect of his arsenal. Guitar solos don’t always have to be unaccompanied: He can accompany himself in that way. That’s a hard thing to put together, and it can easily be disastrous, especially when you’re trying to hook up with the drummer. But Gilad knows what he’s doing.

TJG: What’s the story with “Down Homeless,” was it an older tune of yours?

WV: Yes, it’s an old tune of mine. It has that triplet-y 12/8 ballad feel, and the title is as old as the tune. With the title, like a lot of my titles, you won’t find that much programmatic meaning. Titles are a funny thing. Sometimes the title comes first, and the tune wouldn’t be the same without it. But in music without lyrics, the way a title relates to the music is always a big question. Is it actually programmatic? Does it have meaning? Is it just a name? Sometimes it’s one, the other, a bit of both. Sometimes a tune is really about something. With “Down Homeless,” it’s a musical description combined with wordplay.

TJG: Would you say any of the songs on the album have a story behind them?

WV: Of course all the standards do. There are only three of my originals—“The Pines,” “Resting Jazz Face,” and “Down Homeless.” “Samurai Hee Haw” is a Marc Johnson tune, and the rest of them are standards. “Resting Jazz Face” is another one where the title isn’t necessarily wedded to the music, but it’s got a funny story. It comes from a friend, pianist Kevin Hays. We were on tour together, and we’d sometimes be sitting on a train or bus. From time to time, I’d look over and see Kevin, without headphones on, awake but with his eyes closed, making the kind of faces you make when you’re listening to music. Maybe he was hearing something in his head, or thinking of an anecdote, but in any event, that’s the story behind “Resting Jazz Face.”

TJG: On the new record, where do you think the relationship between Gilad and Antonio really shines?

WV: It shines throughout in different ways, but I suppose one of the moments for me that was especially cool is on “It’s Alright With Me.” The tune has a groove and a vibe and everything, but there are constant adjustments without being too overactive. A bit of open interplay, a bit of ping pong. On “Resting Jazz Face” too, there’s some really cool stuff that happens between those guys, ending with Antonio’s stadium fill.

TJG: If you had to pick one moment as your proudest, or the most surprising, moment from the session, does something jump to mind?

WV: Actually, yes—At the very end of the record, we were playing a vamp on Jerome Kern’s “Nobody Else But Me.” There was a nice spontaneous moment where we used Gilad’s looping and delay technology, we were responding to it in a way that I really liked. Gilad was looping stuff and adding layers, and Antonio and I took the back seat and accompanying this thing. If you listen, Antonio and I aren’t doing much, but I really enjoyed the way all of the pieces came together.

The Will Vinson Trio celebrates the release of It’s Alright With Three (Criss Cross) at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, June 20, 2018. The group features Mr. Vinson on saxophone, Gilad Hekselman on guitar, and Antonio Sanchez on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.