Matt Kassel sit down with Ari Hoenig and Gilad Hekselman

On the night of Friday, November 19, I sat down to talk with guitarist Gilad Hekselman and drummer Ari Hoenig between sets at Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill. (Find the review of the show here.) They were performing in the Rick Rosato Trio, and I caught them in the musicians’ room about thirty minutes before the second and last set of the night. It was a pleasure to talk for a bit with these fine musicians.

MK: So how do you guys know each other? Because you guys seem to have a history with each other. I’ve looked at your discographies…

AH: Yeah…

GH: First, we met through a friend of ours who we’ve played with, Chris Tordini, a bass player, great bass player from New York. And then I took some lessons with him through the New School, with Ari.

MK: Oh, ok.

GH: And then after that I started calling him to do gigs with my band, and soon after he started calling me to do gigs with his band. So we just started…

MK: You just hit it off? What kind of lessons were they?

GH: You know, rhythmic concepts, different, you know, he’d either bring a song of his or a rhythm of his that’s particularly challenging and show it to me, and we could spend the whole lesson doing that—just picking a specific thing and then working on it. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

MK: So, Ari, you don’t teach at the New School, do you?

Ari: Yeah, I teach for them.

MK: Do you teach composition, or…

AH: No, I just teach privately.

MK: Oh, ok. So what do you make of the jazz scene in New York right now? Do you think it’s tight-knit?

AH: Tight-knit meaning…closed?

MK: No, not closed, well, for example, a couple of weeks ago, Aaron Parks was here [in Montreal], the pianist, and he’s going on tour with [saxophonist] Will Vinson, and he played on your album [Bert’s Playground], right?

AH: Aaron? No.

MK: No, Will Vinson.

AH: Oh, Will did, yes.

MK: So it’s cool to see all these names across the board.

AH: Oh, sure. Yeah. Well, we’ve both…I’m sure you [Gilad] have played with Aaron before, right?

GH: A couple of times.

AH: And I did a tour with him [Aaron] this summer. So, you know, everybody kind of plays together to some degree. Not as much as Gilad and I—we’ve played together a lot. I mean, we play together more than most people do. But even…you know, there’s a scene, there’s players, and we all kind of play with each other. It’s a big orgy, really. It’s actually not even a big orgy; it’s just a small orgy. [laughs]

MK: A small orgy? [laughs]

AH: It’s a little one, but quality.

MK: Do you ever feel pressured to not exclude someone? You know, if you’re getting a gig together…

AH: Oh, sure. You know, definitely, to some degree, just like any group of friends, you know, that happens. Not that often, but yeah, it could happen.

MK: Since you [Gilad] come from Israel…you were born in Tel Aviv, or no?

GH: I was born in Kfar Saba, which is a city like maybe thirty minutes out of Tel Aviv.

MK: Oh, ok. What is the jazz scene like in Israel?

GH: It’s growing and growing, you know [look at this and this from A Blog Supreme for more info]. So when I was growing up, there were already like a few generations coming from either Berklee or living in New York, some of my teachers, like Amos Hoffman, or Yuval Cohen, to name a few. And there was also Arnie Lawrence, who started the New School for jazz actually.

MK: Oh, really?

GH: And he moved there [to Israel] at some point, so he started a whole scene of his in Jerusalem. So there’s definitely a lot of great education, and I think the emphasis in Israel is on really good things: like a lot of tradition, a lot of “check out where the music comes from” and stuff, so you know, in that sense, I think it’s great. And also, in the last few years, I feel like things have also started to open up. When I came to New York, I was like a total hard bop-head. You know, I was pretty much…I was still trying to be original, but I was almost only checking out like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and stuff…

MK: Like 1950s stuff…

GH: Which I still do, obviously, but that’s the kind of thing that I came from. But now, whenever I go back, there’s younger cats who are totally open and play, you know, really modern stuff. It just kept getting better. It’s kind of crazy, I had a student a week ago from Israel; he’s seventeen, and he’s ridiculous, like a ridiculous guitar player. I have no doubt that he’s going to be…

MK: What’s his name?

GH: Shachal Nagan

MK: Shachal Nagan? I’ll try to remember that.

GH: But yeah, you know, I had a few of those, too. You know, just really young…especially guitars players, because I teach guitar players…But from Israel, for some reason, they’re just freaks, you know? It’s kind of scary, you know, it keeps getting more and more and more: pianists who are ridiculous. So obviously something there works. So whether it’s the education system, or the climate, or the food, or whatever it is, it seems to work.

MK: That’s interesting. So are you [Ari] excited about any of your students in particular?

AH: Yeah, I mean, gosh, I have so many amazing students who are super talented. I mean, I actually have a lot that are already out there and doing it, like Gilad, you know, people like that. It’s always amazing to see, and I learn as much from my students at this point as much as they learn from me, at least over time. So yeah, I should make a list sometime, because it’s unbelievable to me.

MK: Do you ever ask any of your students to sit in on your Monday night gig at Smalls [in New York]?

AH: I almost never do jam sessions, like sitting in—very rarely do I do that. So generally, no. But I’ve asked students over, let’s say, “ex-students,” people who were studying with me at some point but not necessarily at the present time. So you know, I’ve hired a lot of people that I’ve taught at some point. But it’s not because I’ve taught them that I’m hiring them. It’s more because they’re doing it, and they’re there, and I’ve heard them, and we’ve played together, and the relationship is more like a musical relationship than a teacher-student one. And also, most of the people that I’ve hired that I’ve taught before, it’s not like it’s been a really long-term teaching thing, like years, you know. It hasn’t really been like that. It’s more been like maybe six lessons or twelve lessons or twenty lessons, but not like, “Oh, I’ve been studying with this student for five years,” or something like that. It’s not really so much like that. There have been some people that have studied with me for a long time, but mostly drummers.

MK: OK, well, in terms of composing, do you compose on the piano?

AH: Yeah.

MK: And do you [Gilad] compose on the guitar?

GH: Sometimes. Sometimes the piano, sometimes with other instruments.

MK: I’ve noticed that you [Gilad] pick very nice ballads for your albums.

GH: Oh, thank you.

MK: And I was wondering, how do you go about choosing them?

GH: Like anything, I enjoy playing it, so it inspires me. I personally really like ballads, so I definitely keep my ears open for the ones that I like, of which there are many. So those are the easy tunes to choose, for doing a cover, you know, if I’m covering a standard.

AH: He [Gilad] writes great ballads, too.

MK: Yeah, what was it, “Suite for Sweets” [from the first set]? I liked how that started out, it was really ballad-y.

GH: Yeah, it had a ballad section.

[Rick Rosato walks in. ]

MK: Do you [Rick] want to be involved in the interview?

RR: Oh, you guys are doing that?

MK: Yeah, it could be three-way…or four-way.

RR: I like three-ways, but I’ll let you guys do your thing. [Rick walks out.]

MK: So, yeah. Sorry, I lost my train of thought. That’s awkward. [laughs] OK, yeah, so do you feel like you have to not play too many standards? Either of you? Or do you feel more pressure to play your own tunes?

GH: Depends on the situation. It depends on so many things. To me, when I play with my own trio, I generally like to have more originals. Like, you know, we come to play a gig, and we’ve tried out the music we’ve already played a thousand times, so we say, you know, “Let’s play some standards.” So it’s flexible, but generally, yes, I do have a feeling like I want to present more of my original music. I feel like, in a way, unfortunately, but nowadays, if you play a standard, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything different from playing your own tune in the sense that people can’t really recognize it most of the time. So you might as well play something contemporary that you wrote recently. On the other hand, every jazz musician would say that standards are good guides for improvisation, and just to be more open and not for having the same worries that you have when playing an original composition.

MK: When you said “not recognize,” do you mean because they were written so long ago, or…

GH: Yeah, you know, I wouldn’t be a good example because I didn’t grow up in the United States, so I never grew up with that music. I learned it all from scratch; I didn’t know any of those songs when I studied them. But I think most young people, you know…and then there’s these artists who kind of realize that, and they’re doing more contemporary rock or even pop music, and covers to those songs, and it kind of makes sense. Like it was so great when Trane played “My Favorite Things” because everybody knew it. And it’s that song, and it’s like, “Oh, it’s a lot of notes, and jazz,” you know what I mean? But it makes sense because we can kind of hear the song in the background.

MK: That’s true. So, how did you [Ari] start doing that sort of melodic thing on the drums? You know, how you put your elbow down and make pitches and stuff. How did you decide to start doing that?

AH: You know, it wasn’t even a decision. I mean, I hear melody really strongly, and I think it’s…I believe the melody of the song is probably the most important part of the song. And I think that sometimes the melody gets—not necessarily overlooked—but it gets kind of left really fast, really easily.

MK: It’s like a vessel for launching a song?

AH: Well, I mean, here’s the thing, if you have a song in jazz, usually you play the melody at the beginning of the song, and also a lot of times at the end of the song. And in the middle is what they call solos. And the solos are great, but they will a lot of times just leave the melody, like the melody will almost not have to do with the solos at all, which is still okay. But I guess the way that I started getting into it is to create some sort of a contrast in the music, so that…I never really was a big fan of drum solos that were just trying to play a whole lot of stuff really fast, and things that I didn’t think made that much musical sense. I mean, definitely sometimes, yes, I like to be able to build it up from somewhere, you know, to somehow develop that.

So anyway, my point is that, after a really burning guitar solo or piano solo—or whatever solo—it’s nice to kind of come back to the melody before you build it up to another type of improvisation that gets away from the melody. So I kind of like these arrangements to songs where it’s like: melody and solo, and then melody again, and then the next solo, and then maybe the melody again, and the next solo. You know, something like that, just to really make sure that you’re always playing the song, to some degree, not necessarily that you’re always playing the song, but you’re always hearing the song. And I feel like I can hear the song—and any body listening can kind of hear the song—if the musicians are hearing the song. But I guess that also, sometimes the way musicians think about jazz—especially maybe less experienced musicians—is that you play the melody and then you solo over the “chord changes,” which I’m quoting, quote unquote. [laughs] They don’t really relate the chord changes to the melody; they just think that it’s the chord changes and you just play whatever notes fit in those chords. But then that just leaves the melody kind of in the dust. Anyway, me playing the melody on the drums isn’t directly related to that. It’s just that I like to hear the melody of the song. And my instrument is the drums, so, you know, I try to play it on that.

MK: Yeah, well, that seems important. I mean, I think a lot of drummers—Max Roach, for example—I think would say that, when you’re trading, you would think about the melody.

AH: Oh, he’s super melodic. I mean, Max Roach is really really known for that: one of the most melodic—at least, really known—drummers in the history of jazz. There’s definitely others as well, but yeah, certainly.

MK: So a lot of people have compared you [Gilad] to Pat Metheny and Kurt Rosenwinkel, and I read that you don’t really feel influenced by them. Is that true?

GH: I wouldn’t say that, I mean, let’s start from Pat Metheny: you know, I think everyone that plays modern jazz guitar has some influence from Pat Metheny, whether directly or indirectly. And I really appreciate his thing, and what he does, and what he did for guitar. I can’t say that I ever really dug into his material, like transcribed some of his stuff or solos or whatever. But Kurt, on the other hand, I’m actually really into.

MK: Oh, ok.

GH: Yeah, and I think he’s probably the best guitar player alive nowadays, the best jazz guitar player.

MK: Have you met him?

GH: Yeah, I met him a few times. First couple of times he heard me, it was two of my worst nights playing, especially because I freaked when I saw him in the audience. But then the third time he heard me, I didn’t see him in the audience, and at the end, he came up and said, you know…

AH: That was the last time, right? At Smalls?

GH: Yeah.

AH: Yeah, he really dug it.

GH: Yeah, and he said that it was great, so you know, he was really nice and supportive. And that was a good resolution, because I felt like I could never play when Kurt was in the room.

MK: You felt like you redeemed yourself?

GH: Yeah, I felt a little bit relieved. But I still don’t think that I sounded good that night.

[Rick Rosato walks in again.]

MK: [To rick] So how do you guys know each other?

RR: Well, I took some lessons with Ari in my first year at the New School, so we met like that. And I went to school with Gilad. His last yea there was I think my first year there.

AH: The golden years, the golden New School years.

RR: And he lived like right around the block from me in Brooklyn, so we’d hang out a few times.

MK: Why did you decided to come to Montreal?

RR: Well, I just wanted to take a little break from New York. I missed Montreal a lot, and I really love the city here. Yeah, I just missed the lifestyle: my friends, my family. You know, I’m planning on going back to New York eventually, in maybe two or three years. But I’m really digging Montreal so far, so who knows, maybe I’ll stay here.

MK: Yeah, well, you seem to be doing pretty well.

RR: Yeah, it’s going well.

MK: Are you guys playing different songs for the second set?

RR: Yeah, actually, I wanted to figure that out with them right now.

AH: Yeah.

RR: We have to play soon.

GH: Any burning questions that you want to do before we end?

MK: I guess I’ll ask one more. Well, it wasn’t a burning question, but Russell Malone just recorded a trio album…

GH: Oh yeah? With who?

MK: I’m not sure actually. But he’s forty-seven. And he said that he didn’t think he was ready to do a trio album until right now, so I was wondering if you [Gilad] felt, I don’t know…afraid…of doing a trio album.

GH: Trio was my thing. Like that’s where I feel most comfortable. And you know, I love trying stuff with a quartet—my last two albums have quartets in them. I mean, the previous one that’s not out yet. I mean, obviously Russell Malone was ready to record a trio way earlier, he just didn’t feel ready, which is a different thing. But for me, it was the most natural thing. When I grew up, my favorite music was trio music, like Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau: all trio music. And I constantly looked for ideas for arrangements for the trio. So you know, as long I’ve played jazz, I’ve basically had a trio.

MK: In your head?

GH: No…

MK: In reality? [laughs]

GH: …like literally.

MK: Well, I guess you guys have to play soon.

AH: Yeah, we got to figure out the set and stuff.

MK: Alright, well, thank you for taking the time to walk with me.

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