‘Newsflash’: Gilad Hekselman Can Play

The Israeli-born jazz guitarist revels in spontaneity on his new release, ‘This Just In.’

06/04/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
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When he was a little boy growing up in Kfar Saba, Gilad Hekselman became fascinated by Michael Jackson.

“When I was 7, I was a big Michael Jackson fan and wanted to be a singer,” Hekselman, now 30, admitted in a telephone interview this week. “But I tried to play the drums and the guitar and I gave up singing.”

Israel may have lost a potential “Melekh shel Pop,” but the jazz world gained a terrific guitarist and composer, whose fourth CD, “This Just In,” is being celebrated with a gig June 11 and 12.

“I come from a music-appreciating family, but no one is a musician,” said Hekselman, who moved to New York about 10 years ago as part of a wave of Israeli jazz musicians who have made a significant mark on the city’s jazz scene.

“I started with the piano at 6 and picked up the guitar at 9 after watching my older brother starting to play. All the kids around me were playing guitar and I wanted to become as good as they were.”

And quickly he did. He even landed a television gig on a children’s show that “had a late-night format, but in the morning,” he recalled. “They had a house band like any late-night talk show, and I was a member. It was great. I got to work in super-professional situations with musicians who showed me a lot of things that I still have with me, and I played in front of the biggest audiences I’ve ever had.”

Fortunately, the story didn’t end there. While Hekselman’s jazz audiences may not match those of his childhood in size, the praise he has garnered for his four albums and perpetual-motion schedule of live performances has been consistent and considerable.

The new CD has an intriguing structure, alternating original tunes by Hekselman and his current band with short, sharp bursts in which the guitarist and drummer Marcus Gilmore toss out splintered little improvisations like broken glass refracting light into colors. In keeping with the album’s title, “This Just In,” these off-kilter little gems are called “Newsflashes,” and they make a fascinating contrast with the fully fleshed-out compositions, where Hekselman and Gilmore are joined by bassist Joe Martin, that are the heart of the recording.

Surprisingly, the album’s well-worked construction was the product of chance.

“When I first walked into the studio, I had no idea that was going to be the structure,” Hekselman said. “We did a session covering most of the trio tunes, and I realized that I wanted [frequent collaborator Mark Turner on tenor] on the session and to do another trio tune.

“When we come into the studio, Marcus sets up his cymbals first and plays some interesting figures on them for the sound check. I just turned to him at some point and said, ‘Play the stuff you played on the sound check,’ and I played something with him and we recorded it. I added synthesizer afterwards because it just felt like it needed something.”

When you ask Hekselman about his aesthetic, the word “flexible” comes up repeatedly, and the organic process by which the new set was recorded would seem a perfect example of the dividends reaped by maintaining spontaneity. Even though he’s been touring with the new material for over a month of concerts, he wants to keep that lively, loose quality for the gigs next week.

“I try to put together a couple of sets that make sense, but I’m flexible,” he said. “If I feel like playing another tune, I’ll change it up. To me it’s important to be in the moment and try to read the audience, and what I’m feeling and what the band is feeling.”

It’s unlikely he could have the same flexibility if he had become the next Michael Jackson, so pop’s loss is a gain for Hekselman, for his listeners and for jazz.

Gilad Hekselman marks the release of his new album, “This Just In,” on the Jazz Village label, with two nights of live performances at the Jazz Standard (116 E. 27th St.) on June 11 and 12, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. For information, call (212) 576-2232 or go to http://jazzstandard.net/. 

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