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All was calm when I arrived at Gilad Hekselman’s Brooklyn apartment on a sunny August day. The place was immaculate and quiet (aside from the occasional rumble of a nearby train) while the 35-year-old guitarist sat, relaxed and barefoot, sipping water at a table near the window.
A few hours later at Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village, Hekselman engaged in ecstatic interplay with bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Jonathan Pinson, his bandmates in the gHex Trio. Opening with the hopefully-titled “It Will Get Better,” the leader’s soft, repeating figures trailed off into ringing chords as Rosato walked insistent lines punctuated by Pinson’s pulsing hand drumming. The cumulative result deftly balanced intimacy and intensity, especially as the song built incrementally to its soaring climax.
[caption id="attachment_14311" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Rick Rosato (left), Gilad Hekselman and Pinson (Credit: Maria Jarzyna)[/caption]
A charming home and a joyous collaboration — so what was Hekselman talking about when he named his latest album Ask For Chaos?
Well, for one, within a few hours of my departure the stillness of Hekselman’s apartment would erupt once again with the noise and energy of a young family, once his wife and year-and-a-half old son returned home. As for the band, the gHex Trio has achieved an exuberant collectivity, but that’s been earned over the course of two years together, once Hekselman decided to roll the dice on new musical experiments. After a decade and three albums with the stellar rhythm section of Joe Martin and Marcus Gilmore, Ask For Chaos (Hexaphonic/Motéma) features not one but two new trios: the more traditional gHex alongside the electric, bassless ZuperOctave, with keyboardist Aaron Parks and drummer Kush Abadey (Kendrick Scott has since assumed the drummer’s role).
“The title is based on something that I heard coming out of the Yogic tradition,” Hekselman explains. “You ask for chaos because it brings renewal. Being comfortable is not necessarily always good for you. So it’s ‘ask for chaos’ in the sense of make yourself uncomfortable and see what happens. It sounds scary at first, but it’s actually optimistic.”
Despite his ultimate optimism, Hekselman admits to some degree of distress over bringing a child into the world given the current state of politics and cultural divisiveness. In a sense, the native Israeli’s adopted country has asked for a bit too much chaos — and while he keeps his fingers crossed for the best, he’s not one to cheer on the flames in hopes of seeing a phoenix arise.
“From a political standpoint, I’m not trying to say that it’s good that everything is happening the way it is now, because it’s going to be great afterwards. That would be a very privileged thing to say. My kids aren’t being taken away from me. I’m not as directly influenced by events as, let’s say, a person of color being harassed or killed by the police. So the message isn’t that we should be happy about everything that’s going on right now. It’s more a wish that this very turbulent time brings growth in us as a society.”
On a personal level, Hekselman has already experienced an incredible amount of growth since the birth of his son. In one fell swoop, the center of his universe suddenly shifted, bringing a new sense of perspective to what had heretofore been the main focus of his life. “Fatherhood has become more important to me than music,” he says, still a bit incredulous to hear himself say it aloud.
“It’s the first time ever in my life that anything has become more important than music. Most people still mainly see me as a musician, but for me it’s a relief to not see myself as only that. Your entire self-worth is no longer based on how well the gig went, because now I come home and get to see my son in the morning. Whatever happened last night, now I’m his father, no matter what. It’s a healthy place to make music from.”
“You ask for chaos because it brings renewal. Being comfortable is not necessarily always good for you.”
Growing up an hour outside of Tel Aviv, Hekselman’s early years were spent in the kinds of aimless rambles that kids enjoy in a not quite urban, not quite rural, more countryside than suburban existence. (“Going up on a mountain, playing with turtles, burning stuff,” being the list of typical memories that he rattles off.) But by the age of 9, prompted by hearing Michael Jackson and then rapidly expanding outward in myriad directions, music had become the center of his world.
Piano lessons never took hold, his singing didn’t promise the next King of Pop, a neighbor’s objections quashed the idea of becoming a drummer, but the guitar finally gave Hekselman a musical voice. Along with more formal lessons, a number of neighbors stepped up to show him some tricks and by the age of 12 he had joined the house band on a nationally broadcast morning TV series that emulated the format of a late-night talk show for children. Hekselman found himself backing celebrity singers, actors and comedians on television while playing concerts to packed houses of distractible kiddies. “It’s still the biggest audiences I ever played to,” he laughs ruefully.
As the youngest member of the band, Hekselman was taken under the wings of the older musicians, who introduced him to fusion and thus led him on a path from pop and rock to jazz. “It was fun,” he says of the discovery. “At first it was just about being able to execute playing the changes and all that stuff. But eventually, of course, it was the element of freedom in music.”
Hekselman attended the Thelma Yellin High School of Arts, whose roster of alumni reads as a who’s who of Israeli jazz musicians: the Cohen siblings, Shai Maestro, Omer Avital, Eli Degibri, Omer Klein and on and on. He visited New York City with the school’s big band and was introduced to the metropolis’ jazz culture via treks to the Blue Note and other clubs. He returned for an entire summer in 2000, subletting an apartment with a friend to test the waters. It was then that Hekselman discovered the thriving scene centered on Smalls, where he’d regularly check out soon-to-be greats like Joshua Redman and Kurt Rosenwinkel.
[caption id="attachment_14313" align="alignnone" width="992"] Credit: Caterina Di Perri[/caption]
“These amazing bands that you now have to buy a $40 ticket to see, they would just casually play at Fat Cat or at Smalls,” Heksleman recalls. “So I would see them all the time, and I would always hang for the jam session at night. It was a bit different, very funky. Then, right before I left town, someone got sick and [Smalls owner Mitch Borden] asked me to lead the late-night jam session. That was my first gig in New York, and the bug was in. I spent three years in Israel practicing and playing gigs and finding a way to come back.”
The key to his return was the New School, where Hekselman began studying at age 21. Hekselman also returned to Smalls, becoming a constant at the club and forging many of the relationships that he maintains to this day. “I used that opportunity to call all the musicians that I admired,” he says. “If I went out to see Ari Hoenig’s band and thought he was great, I called Ari. I called Mark Turner out of the blue. These musicians are more open-minded than most people realize. New York is a laboratory, so most of them will be down to try to play at least one gig with you.”
With Hoenig and bassist Joe Martin, another cold call, Hekselman recorded his 2006 debut, Split Life. On his 2009 follow-up, Words Unspoken, Hekselman brought Martin back and enlisted drummer Marcus Gilmore, cementing the band that would remain at the core of the guitarist’s work until Ask For Chaos. Hekselman’s instantly identifiable sound is already evident in these early releases, combining an ethereal fluidity with an incisive edge, tethering his lyrical filigrees to a keen intentionality. The rhythm duo proves to be the perfect foil, following Hekselman’s lead with a gentle, unstressed urgency that is shared, albeit in a newfound shape, with the gHex Trio.
On Hearts Wide Open (2011) and This Just In (2013) the trio is supplemented by saxophonist Mark Turner, who shares in Hekselman’s enthusiasm for wringing harmonic surprises from the guitarist’s airily spiraling compositions. “It was obvious that they had a clear, strong bond,” Turner says of the trio. “It was like stepping into a nicely flowing river. Gilad always brought together a pop accessibility with an underlining complexity, while Marcus and Joe brought a rhythmic power that was subtle but very complex, giving a very unique power and energy to the music.”
Opening with the tolling of a gong and Hekselman’s breezily whistled melody, Hearts Wide Open ushers in a distinguishing buoyancy to the composer’s work, a quicksilver lining that imbues even his knottiest swerves with abundant warmth. “There has to be heart,” he declares simply. “I’m not into cerebral music for the sake of cerebralism. You can write the most complicated music, but if it doesn't groove and it doesn't make me feel something, I’m going to lose my interest in a couple of minutes. You’re not going to make everybody happy at all times, but if the cats are rocking and there’s a good energy to the track, I think it justifies the brainy part of it.”
Those feelings are tinged by a darker sense of world events on This Just In (2013), which takes the mood-swinging structure of a news broadcast to explore the different tonalities of Hekselman’s globe-ranging influences. The absorption of all those cultural impressions turns into a kind of wistful rootlessness on Homes (2015), which reflects on the nomadic life of an immigrant and a constantly touring musician.
“At that time, I didn’t feel like I had one home,” Hekselman says. “Being from one place, living in a different place, but also traveling to many places where you start to feel some sense of ownership of a certain corner or a certain restaurant — I was trying to express that feeling along with all of my musical homes. There’s some Brazil in there, some Africa, some Israel, some Pat Metheny — all the different things that I consider my musical homes in some way.”
“I’m not into cerebral music for the sake of cerebralism. You can write the most complicated music, but if it doesn't groove and it doesn't make me feel something, I’m going to lose my interest in a couple of minutes.”
After the birth of his son, Hekselman no longer feels confused about where to call home. “Home is a very clear thing now,” he says. “This is it, here. Still, I can’t help but wonder if this is where I’m going to live for the rest of my life. I actually don't know the answer to that. In some ways it’s scary and in some ways it’s liberating.”
The conflict between fear and freedom has become central to Hekselman’s music in recent years. In some ways a practical reaction to the increasing demands on his bandmates’ time, the decision to embark on new collaborations was also a welcome challenge. While the gHex Trio at least maintains a familiar instrumentation, ZuperOctave — which was born via a commission from New York’s Jazz Gallery — places him in a more alien situation that snakes inventively along the border between acoustic and electric sounds.
Despite alternating between two very different bands, Ask For Chaos is a cohesive statement united by Hekselman’s writing, which maintains a translucent melodic throughline whether erupting into ferocious grooves with gHex or blooming into hazy electronic textures with ZuperOctave. You can hear the same imagination at work in every piece, whether in the complex math-funk of “Tokyo Cookie” or the open-hearted sweetness of “Do Re Mi Fa Sol.”
“Gilad has a special sense of patience and lyricism,” Parks says. “That’s also reflected in his compositions, which often have very memorable, singable melodies. It doesn't feel like he just plays that and then switches into shred mode; it feels like he continues to tell the story of the song. I hear a lot of maturity and patience there.”
ZuperOctave also takes advantage of Hekselman’s gift for simultaneously playing bass lines and melodic lines, an ingenious solution to the challenge of emulating the two-handed independence of the pianists who have so profoundly inspired him. “My biggest obsessions were Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea. A lot of the concepts and ideas that I use are borrowed from piano, but the work to get there is insane. Things that I have to work on for hours and hours on the guitar, I can do on the piano just by sitting down and laying my fingers on it.”
He’s carried his distinctive polyphonic approach into a number of other situations of late, including trumpeter John Raymond’s bassless trio Real Feels as well as Ben Wendel’s Seasons band, which grew out of the saxophonist’s calendar-inspired duo pieces with some of his favorite forward-leaning musicians. “Gilad is able to play two or three roles at the same time,” Wendel says. “That’s what I love about musicians like Gilad; their skill is a reflection of what they want to hear. It’s almost like he’s trying to be a piano player on guitar, and that’s the result – and it’s a really unique result.”
[caption id="attachment_14316" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Photo Credit: Josh Goleman[/caption]
In the tradition of his early cold-call collaborations, Hekselman has also engaged in a series of spontaneous collaborations through an ongoing series at Cornelia Street Café. He’s played in duo settings with Fred Hersch and Cécile McLorin Salvant, and put together ad hoc trios with Billy Hart and Ben Williams or Antonio Sanchez and Becca Stevens. For the most part these are undertaken with no rehearsal and very little planning.
“The good part about becoming more established is you get better gigs and bigger audiences,” he says. “The downside of it is that things become less casual. Every concert is a concert. You need to have a set list and you need to be prepared and you need to dress up. I treat these Cornelia Street gigs like a restaurant gig, where you just show up and come up with stuff on the spot. I do those mainly to feel uncomfortable, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s nice to see people that have played 3,000 gigs get slightly nervous.”
Pausing for a moment, he adds, “Once you ask for chaos, it becomes addictive.”
Feature image: Gilad Hekselman (Credit: Josh Goleman)