Israeli Guitarist Takes Red Sea Jazz Festival by Storm

After a spectacular concert, it's safe to say that the title of Gilad Hekselman's highly acclaimed album 'Hearts Wide Open' is no mere coincidence.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

One of the best measures of a successful concert is sales at the adjacent stand. When leaving the concert, you pass a stand where albums by the artist who performed are on sale; will you stop to buy one or keep walking? Roughly speaking, at nine out of ten concerts, the music fan will keep moving. Only at one out of ten concerts will he head for the stand and buy the album. Guitarist Gilad Hekselman's album, "Hearts Wide Open," earned high praise in late 2011 when a New York Times music critic chose it as one of the year's ten best albums overall, not just jazz albums. But with all due respect to The New York Times, the ear of its critics is not as good a measure as disc sales at the concert stand, and Hekselman's concert at the Eilat jazz festival was one of those rare occasions when you leave the concert, dash to the sales stand and discover much to your delight that you aren't the only one who thought it was a fantastic performance.

Hekselman went to the United States around six years ago and even though he occasionally hopped over to Israel for concerts, he never performed with his own material at a large-scale festival like the Red Sea Jazz Festival. This concert was therefore an opportunity to review the guitarist's development during his years in New York. He left Israel as a very promising guitarist and presumably he improved considerably in New York, but it was impossible to foresee that he would turn into a terrific guitarist and, more importantly, an amazing musician.

The concert's first piece was a little hesitant, but the moment the second piece began, it was clear Hekselman's musicianship had climbed several leagues in New York. We mentioned ways of measuring a performance, but there is a special measure for jazz musicians: the blues test. You cannot fake it when playing blues: if you're an excellent musician, you will make it personal and original; if you are not, the rendition will be stiff. The second piece in Hekselman's concert was a blues piece and he composed and performed it in a dazzlingly original way, without a trace of blues formula. It was thoughtful and had lots of emotion, and Hekselman played rough, messy chords, strumming as if it hurt. When the piece was finished, he told the crowd the piece is called, "Brooze." No wonder. One of Hekselman's talents as a guitarist is that he knows how to be coarse and is not afraid to be bruised, so to speak, even though his tone and basic guitar touches are very soft and flexible. Another talent is his ability to easily get past the virtuosity trap. His technical mastery of the guitar is complete, but it does not turn him into a guitar athlete. He thinks while he plays. He does not let his fingers run in place. And another wonderful thing: he smiles when he plays. He also knows how to choose partners. His rhythm section, with Matt Brewer on contrabass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, was very good, and the other soloist, saxophonist Mark Turner (a seasoned, outstanding jazz musician whose mere participation says a lot about Hekselman's esteem in New York ), played excellently and modestly, making sure not to play too long, leaving the spotlight on Hekselman. Incidentally, Turner missed his flight and arrived in Eilat right before the concert, which had been delayed several hours because of that. There was no hint in his performance of any earlier disruption. It was one of those incredible performances that nothing could ruin.

Thanks to the jazz fan

A few days before the festival, an e-mail from a jazz fan arrived more or less saying: pay attention to trumpeter Sean Jones. He is not a superstar like Christian McBride, but I saw him in New York a few weeks ago and he is a great jazz musician. I'm sure, the jazz fan, went on, he will also excel in Eilat.

The jazz fan was right on the mark. Jones, who is still not very well known, did indeed turn out to be an excellent musician. One goal of every music festival is to introduce the audience to outstanding musicians right before they become recognized. Jones is at this point in his career (or maybe he just doesn't have star quality ) and the festival's directors demonstrated alertness and good taste when they invited him.

Jones and his quintet play contemporary hard bop which relies on the style's grand traditions (elegant melodies, a mix of trumpet and saxophone in the forefront, a "black" feel of swing and blues ), but manage to make it up-to-date with little touches. It happens first and foremost thanks to the performance of the drummer, Obed Calvaire and the pianist, Orrin Evans. They played jazz the way it's meant to be, but it was apparent that they were very much influenced by the rhythmic feel and tone of the new R&B. I am sure that Calvaire, who looks as if he was separated at birth from Poet (the street poet from the television series "Oz" ) and listened a lot to Questlove, the drummer of the hip hop band The Roots.

The first 45 minutes of the concert were nearly perfect - compositions, playing, tonal blend, everything. Afterward, Jones became emotional and before each piece talked about the feelings that led to its composition. Too much information? A bit, and the pieces themselves were not dazzling. But the last piece got the concert back on the high road. Let's hope that Jones returns to Israel soon, and thanks again to the jazz fan.

Brief impressions from two other concerts on the second night of the festival: The concert by the percussionist Joca Perpignan, an Israeli musician who is a native of Brazil, was engaging and very enjoyable. Perpignan and his band, which included a trio of percussionists, played lovely original works alongside several sambas from the Brazilian canon. Perpignan's new album came out a few days ago and was on sale at the festival complex. I am certain (and I also observed this firsthand ) that for many Brazilian music lovers, he easily passed the album sales test.

A humorous approach

The last concert on the festival's second day was by the French trio Minvielle/Suarez/Dufour. Vocalist Andre Minvielle leads this group, which combines scat singing and touches of humor. But Minvielle is not a particularly good singer and the humorous approach does not work so well at 1 A.M. Based on the first 20 minutes of the concert, it seems this show was better suited to one of the festival's outer stages.

And if we're already discussing the festival's stage, at 7:45 P.M., a few minutes before the start of the concert, a band of young jazz musicians stood there and played famous jazz segments for the enjoyment of the early birds in the audience. One segment, a beautiful hard bop piece with a Latin beat, sounded familiar. Horace Silver? Lee Morgan? Benny Golson? After a minute it came to me: it was "Sari" by Amit Golan, the fine jazz musician and teacher who died less than two years ago. He would have been happy had he lived to see these young jazz students performing his music on the shores of the Red Sea at sunset.

Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, second night. Gilad Hekselman Quartet; Sean Jones Quintet; Joca Perpignan Group; Minvielle-Suarez-Dufour.

Gilad Hekselman at Red Sea Jazz Festival.Credit: Shlomi Da’i
Sean Jones at Red Sea Jazz Festival.Credit: Shlomi Da’i



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