During recent months, a number of jazz projects have occupied my time and in particular the 7VirtualJazzClub competition. I am one of the judges. Both albums came to my attention via that platform, as the Tobias Meinhart band had an entry last year and Gilad Hekselman won four years earlier.
Both albums reflect our interesting times as both were conceived during the lockdowns; they are uplifting and filled with promise. They inspire. Improvising musicians are torchbearers, reminding us of what could be and how unstoppable the creative spirit is. Even when the times are sorely testing.
The Painter: Tobias Meinhart
This is an all-star band and with these musicians on board, it’s hardly surprising that it is such a great album. I came upon the band recently while judging the 7VirtualJazzClub competition. I was listening blind and the minute I heard the bass opening on White Bear I thought, oh, that could be Matt Penman and it was. I thought it might even be a Penman tune, but I learned later that Meinhart composed the tune with Penman in mind.
The German-born Meinhart has long been a significant presence on the New York scene. He attracts great players and this album features a dream lineup. Eden Ladin on keys, Matt Penman on bass and Obed Calvaire on drums; with guests, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Charles Altura on guitar; each one bringing their best to this project.
The compositions draw on many sources; a dumpling house, a koan, a painter, a baseball player, a meteor, racial injustice, Shep and Jarrett, The influences may be diverse but all resonate and invite deeper listening. White Bear, for example, is irresistible, a torrent of joyous invention, killing melodic lines, heart-stopping rhythms, and moments of surprise and all drawing our attention beyond the underlying complexity.
The tunes are Meinhart’s, with the exception of the lovely standard Estate (Martino). Estate is a duet with Ladin and I was reminded of the timeless Art Pepper duets with George Cables. There was a suggestion in the phrasing but especially so in the tone or intonation; a warm summery caress. A modern take on an old tune and done respectfully. The Last Dance is a tribute to Impulse, Jarrett and Shep. It is especially beguiling, a story told obliquely, it is perfect.
There are many moods explored here, some delicate, some touching on the mystical, others capturing exuberance. The liner notes refer to a painterly or synesthetic approach and that is evident throughout. It is a feature of contemporary jazz to hold such conversations, reaching across art forms. Such a conversation is realised perfectly here.
Tobias Meinhart: tenor & soprano saxophones, alto flute, voice
Ingrid Jensen: trumpet 2 & 6
Charles Altura: guitar 1 & 10
Eden Ladin: piano, Rhodes, ARP Ensemble
Matt Penman: Bass
Obed Calvaire: drums
The album was released by Sunnyside Records and it is available now on Bandcamp, in digital form or on compact disk
Far Star: Gilad Hekselman
When I was offered a review copy of ‘Far Star’ I jumped at it. Gilad Hekselman stands at the forefront of contemporary jazz guitarists. His discography is impressive, with a string of acclaimed albums and each one encompassing a widening cohort of fans. He is a guitarists guitarist, but he remains accessible. He possesses an extraordinary technical facility, but it is never deployed unnecessarily. Above all, he is adventurous and he brings his audiences along for the ride.
It is a solo album with guests although not billed as such. The genesis of the album tells its own tale, a collection of tunes originally composed as vehicles for a live band became a different type of project, one born out of pandemic isolation. Creatives rise to such challenges and Hekselman certainly did. He plays a dizzying array of instruments here, guitars, keys, bass (and deploys effects). The leader’s contributions were recorded in Israel; some guests were recorded in other countries.
The drummer Eric Harland appears on 5 of the tracks and his addition was a masterstroke. He is always in lockstep but subtly manages to play with time. On track 5, Magic Chord, he took my breath away. In all, there are nine musicians appearing on the album although often fleetingly so. The gifted Israeli pianist Shai Maestro plays keys on track 2 and along with Nomok, is a co-producer.
The opening track ‘Long Way From Home’ is a stunner. It begins with a pretty whistled melodic line. As the piece unfolds subtle complexities are introduced, and this simple beguiling melody morphs into a vehicle for exultant improvisation. Again, Harland is extraordinary, Hekselman the guitarist plus multi-instrumentalist is beyond belief.
This is an album with many facets and it is an album that listeners will return to again and again; it has so much to offer, joy – and above all hope. The title track is the most reflective and wistfully so. There is Americana and there is edginess and the track titled ‘Cycles’ is pure and unalloyed beauty. When an artist produces an album this good, you have to marvel, and you wonder, how could he ever top that.
Gilad Hekselman: guitars, keys, bass
Eric Harland: drums (1,2,3,5,6
Shai Maestro: co-production, keys (2)
Nathan Schram: viola, violin (4)
Oren Hardy: bass: (4)
Alon Benjamini: drums, percussion (4)
Nomrok: co-production, keys (7)
Amir Bresler: co-production, drums, percussion (7)
Ziv Ravitz: drums (8)
Release date 13 May 2022 by Edition Records giladhekselman.bandcamp.com