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Trio Grande: Three instruments, three nationalities, one supergroup

Photo credit: Dave Bush

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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It’s a bit like playing in duo, except that there’s three of us, so there's that much more personality in it —Will Vinson
An incessant stream of new artists, new ideas, revisitations of old ideas and ever-shifting technological inventions continues to push jazz onward, forward into the 21st Century. While most of today's music began taking root and developing in the turbulent jazz topographies of the last century, each new interpretation, extension and redesign today adds a new perspective, sometimes even a new dimension, to the possibilities in jazz, thereby enlarging its universe. The three members of newly conceived outfit Trio Grande just so happen to belong among the leading pack carrying on the torch of innovation in the past two decades. Each contributing to the constantly shifting sonic spheres as part of the old guard's outfits or via their own numerous and resourceful projects, the trio easily qualifies as a modern-day supergroup.

As close as a jazz drummer can maybe come to being a celebrity today, Pat Metheny's go to guy on the sticks, Antonio Sanchez, is largely responsible for the trio's driven yet grounded foundation. Like on his Grammy award-winning Birdman movie score, Sanchez brings exciting polyrhythmic figurations to his trio partners, whose experimental cues he's able to act on with equally imaginative introspections. The lack of any conformity to jazz traditionalism lets him shine especially bright and sees Sanchez bringing his recent experimentations, found on the ambitious solo album Bad Hombre (Cam Jazz, 2017) and Lines in The Sand (CAM Jazz, 2019), to new heights, painting a more complete picture of the gifted musician.

The melodic center of the eclectic trio act, British saxophonist Will Vinson stretches out beyond his usual aesthetic reach and even adds the occasional Fender Rhodes overdub to the modern sound tapestries presented over eight original compositions. Not even a year ago the lyrical tenor presented a passionately performed selection of sophisticated originals and classy standards presented with a handful of today's most celebrated pianists on Four Forty One (Whirlwind Recordings, 2020). With "Boogaloo," one of his originals off that album made it on to the vinyl version of Trio Grande as well, now treated to an electric and more atmospheric approach. Vinson is mainly responsible for the trio coming into existence. It is for his Criss Cross album It's Alright With Three (Criss Cross, 2018) that the group first got together and started working on their unique brand of bass-less improvisation.

The term "bass-less" however might be conceived as somewhat deceiving. After all, Gilad Hekselman pulls many strings (ok, there are only six, to be exact) to produce a dual effect from his instrument, simulating bass ranges via octave pedal and loops that subsequently, and sometimes concurrently, invite cranked up walls of fuzz and slippery guitar soloing to join the deep-frequency lines. The Israeli guitarist has become somewhat of an expert at this dual-role in recent times, having performed in a bass-less environment on last year's tour with Ferenc Nemeth's Freedom trio featuring Chris Potter as well as with John Raymond's Real Feels and his very own trio project ZuperOctave, featuring Aaron Parks.

After having first gotten to know each other better on the cast's entertaining Vinson-led debut recording It's alright With Three, Trio Grande sees the three reconvening for an even more confident demonstration of modern soundscapes blended with catchy hooks—all against the backdrop of the members' deep roots in jazz. In a remotely held conversation across four continents, the three musicians spoke to All About Jazz, among other things, about what sparked the trio's creation, their respective roles in the group and how an airport and GarageBand (the software) inspired a composition on their new album.

All About Jazz: Could you talk about how the three of you first got together?

Will Vinson: We got together as a trio three years ago. I was approached by Criss Cross's Gerry Teekens to do a record under my name and I was kind of in the process of recording and assembling the groups for Four Forty One at the time so I didn't want to do anything that involved piano. And since things with Gerry are often somewhat last minute, I didn't have a lot of time to do much planning. But it just so happened that I'd just been to Cornelia Street Café [Jazz venue situated in Greenwich Village, New York, that closed in 2019] to see Gilad [Hekselman] and Antonio [Sanchez] play in a trio with Becca Stevens and I really enjoyed the way they played together and interpreted the tunes. So I thought I'd just go ahead and call these two guys. A bass-less trio, specifically with guitar, is something I've wanted to have since I first heard the Paul Motian trio. That sound world really appealed to me and of course you're never really going to be able to recreate it quite like that, because Paul Motian and Bill Frisell, not to mention Joe Lovano, are such individual, idiosyncratic players. At any rate, that band was initially assembled for my Criss Cross record It's Alright With Three and we became a co-led band when I proposed us doing some touring for the record. We pursued our next recording, which was in April of last year and became Trio Grande.

Antonio Sanchez: We had so much fun the first time around that we decided to keep at it, but that It would be a collective effort where everybody would bring tunes and be part of the production and arranging concept.

AAJ: Had you played together before, in a different context?

Gilad Hekselman: Yeah, I played in Will's band for quite a bit and him and I played together in Ari Hoenig's group a good amount of time, too. With Antonio I've played together here and there, a few times in trio with Becca [Stevens]. But this is the first time I'm really working with him intimately in a studio project, which is nice!

AAJ: Were you sure from the start that it was going to be a bass-less affair?

WV: Yes. The bass-less thing for me is kind of an attempt to throw open the textures somewhat. To allow more dramatic changes in texture than you usually have with a bass. I love bass players as much as anybody, truly, but often the bassist's role is to hold things down and I wanted a situation where things could be held down but turn on a dime at any moment. I thought that removing the bass could be a way to do that. Of course, Gilad is the perfect guy for that. He's got this incredible skill on the guitar to be able to occupy enough of the bass role to satisfy that need without just playing the bass lines or replacing the bass. He has this kind of nimbleness and ability to really change direction dramatically at any moment in an interactive way. It's a bit like playing in duo, except that there's three of us (laughs), so there's that much more personality in it.

AS: We knew that Gilad was going to take on most of the bass responsibilities with this really cool concept that he does, where he plays bass and guitar simultaneously. At the same time, it's not a way of playing where you can be sure that the bass will always be there. That's what makes it much more interesting. It makes us play completely differently. Musically it's a very different way of approaching things and it's this kind of configuration and playing that definitely keeps you on your toes!

GH: I was already playing around with the approach of having to cover the bass in my guitar playing at the time. Not trying to be a bassist per se, but I got called for this role quite a bit, for projects such as Real Feels or Jaques Schwarz-Bart's band and then of course my own group [ZuperOctave]. But live Will also started to kind of cover the bass range, too, and that frees me up to let loose a bit more.

AAJ: Can you talk about the different compositions on this album? Were they written explicitly for this project?

GH: No, none of mine were written just for this project. "Elli Yeled Tov" is the only one that comes close. It wasn't written explicitly for this project, but it came to me at around the time we were deciding what to record. I remember writing the song at the airport while playing around with GarageBand.

WV: Some of mine were and some were not. One of them, "Boogaloo," appears on 4 41 and "Upside" appears on an older record of mine called Perfectly out of Place (5Passion, 2016) . There was one that was written specifically for this album and that's "Oberkampf."

AS: Mine already existed, but some of them didn't really have a home yet. They weren't in the same line of what I've been doing with my band, Migration. So they were just lying around and waiting to be recorded in some other context. "Northbound" was penned a couple of years ago, when I did a run at the Jazz Standard with Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin and Matt Brewer. That was a blast, but the song didn't fit Migration that well and Trio Grande ended up being the perfect context to do it in. "Firenze" was written for Joe Lovano and John Patitucci for my album 3 x 3 and "Gocta" I wrote for a session that has yet to come out, featuring David Binney, Ben Monder and Matt Brewer, but it's the kind of tune that I think works really well in different contexts.

AAJ: How much time did you have playing together and working out the tunes before getting into the studio to record them?

WV: I'm going to say 90 minutes, something like that. We did a brief rehearsal at my house.

GH: Yeah, it was only one longer rehearsal. One of the cool things with this band is that we don't play anything extremely complicated—besides the fact my colleagues in the band or extremely skilled musicians anyways. They can destroy (in a good way) any piece of music that's put in front of them. But essentially, nothing in the music is extremely complex, it's more about having a good time, finding space and sounds together. Everything about making this record was super easy. We spent two days at Samurai studio recording, eating, chilling, recording some more and that was it. Also, there's something about not being the bandleader that kind of takes away some of the pressure and makes everything a little more comfortable. You share the pressure instead. Even if it had gone terribly wrong, we would have split the responsibility and stress.

AS: We recorded with the very skilled engineer Mike Marciano. It was a very easy session because everybody plays so great and they're such cool people. Simply a fun, effortless session.

AAJ: What inspired your respective compositions?

AS: "Northbound" was something I wanted to write that would be fun to play, that was not too hard. Because all my material lately with Migration is extremely intricate, with a lot of orchestration, many parts, long structures. I wanted to break out of that and write something that would make up about one page and have enough on its bones to be effective and fun to play. "Gocta" was inspired by an amazing waterfall that my wife Thana Alexa and I had seen when visiting Peru.

GH: "Elli Yeled Tov" in Hebrew means "Elli is a good boy," Elli being the name of my son. Like many of my tunes I start out with a lyric idea; you can kind of hear it on the recording on this record. "Will You Let it" is an older tune of mine from the record Hearts Wide Open (Le Chant du Monde, 2011). Here also, it's a line in the song. I don't always write entire lyrics for a song, but many times, when I look for a melody, I'll think of some words that seem appropriate and they'll help me come up with a melody. The general idea of the lyric is, like the title of that record, about a heart opening; choosing love when you see it, if you're able to (laughs). "Scoville" is dedicated to John Scofield. I wrote that one before the [Village] Vanguard week that I did with my band. I wanted to have a tune that was slightly more "in your face." As I was writing it, I realized that it could be a Scofield tune and I was perfectly ok with that. Scofield is one of my favorites. It was only later on that I found out that Scoville was also a measurement unit for spiciness as well as a tune by Brad Mehldau, but by that time it was too late; I'd already played it at festivals and it was well documented so I just went with the title (sarcastically dry).

WV: As I'd mentioned, "Boogaloo" and "Upside" were pre-existing, but as far as "Oberkampf" goes, I was going for a kind of anthemic composition which I didn't previously have in my written repertoire. Sometimes when there's something missing you just have to take care of it. I also very much had Gilad's sound and Antonio's groove in mind for that one.

AAJ: How much overdubbing was done on this record?

GH: Most of it was live. Sometimes we felt like something needed more harmony, so we put down a Rhodes or another guitar. I think there's one tune on there where I put down the bass separately and we also added clapping and some other things, but the great thing is that we can also play it all live, maybe slightly more naked, but between us three we can cover the necessary ground.

VW: Yeah, there's a significant amount of overdubbing. But we were also aware of the fact that we wanted to tour this music. So we kind of had it in our minds that whatever overdubbing we do, it had to be something that would be somewhat replicable via looping or such on stage.

AAJ: This question is directed toward Antonio Sanchez—besides your own output, solo or with Migration, you've been an active and fixed member of Pat Metheny's different outfits for a very long time now and also drum on his most recent outing From This Place (Nonesuch, 2020). How did this new trio project fit into your schedule and how is drumming as a part of this trio different from your other projects?

AS: I've been very lucky to be part of Pat's circle of trusted musical friends for about 18 to 19 years now and it's always amazing to play with him. But at the time when I was doing this record with Will and Gilad, my activities with Pat weren't too strenuous. We had already finished touring with Gwilym Simcock and Linda May Han Oh and Pat was already editing his newest record. We were going to do some more touring when suddenly the Pandemic hit. We were actually in the middle of a South American run when this happened. But Trio Grande fit beautifully into my musical world, because there was nothing that I'd really ever done like it, specifically the instrumentation of saxophone, guitar and drums. I was really eager to explore that more, because it's also very different from Migration, where things are a lot more charted and complex. This has been a breath of fresh air that makes me play in a completely different way. I love the openness of it and how it makes me think, keeps me on my toes. It's just been a blast to be part of this group.

AAJ: Gilad Hekselman, you've had many outings and opportunities now where you hold down the bass and improvise on guitar simultaneously. You already mentioned John Raymond's Real Feels, and you also recently toured with Ferenc Nemeth and Chris Potter; additionally, you have your own bass-less trio outfit ZuperOctave. How does this project compare to those and how is your playing on Trio Grande different?

GH: I guess one big difference is that Will plays keys, since he's a great pianist too. It's nice to sometimes have to worry about less. In Real Feels I'm like an organ, you know? I keep the bass, I strike the chords, I play solos; sometimes I feel like a two-handed orchestra. It's a lot but it's very fun and I wouldn't do it if I didn't love the challenge. But with Trio Grande we can really create beautiful harmony and I get a break, too. The Ferenc stint is a whole other thing. He uses a vocoder and can thereby imitate an entire orchestra only via his voice. ZuperOctave is somewhat similar to Trio Grande, in how Aaron Parks is on keys and I'm basically a kind of bassist behind his solos. At other times my role isn't unlike the guitar's role in an organ trio.

AAJ: Do you feel unbound or more constrained without the bass?

GH: It's both. It's constrained when I have to lay things down, play a groove or play a fixed part of the arrangement. On the other hand, if no one's playing the harmony, I can literally do whatever I want, as long as it makes sense musically. If I can give Antonio cues to follow, that can be really fun. I can change they keys, vamp on a section—do a bunch of different things. And Antonio is really open to that and pays attention.

AAJ: Now that touring is pretty much off the table for the time being, how do you plan on bringing the music to an audience, other than via the album recording itself? Are there any plans for live streaming events? Had you originally planned on touring?

VW: Prior to the Pandemic hitting Gilad and his family had temporarily relocated to Tel Aviv. Myself and my wife very abruptly left New York in March, when my wife was seven months pregnant, for obvious reasons, so we're currently all over the place and therefore can't do a live streaming event. We had originally planned on touring and we do still plan on touring!

GH: When we first made this record were hoping to go touring and already made some specific plans and dates, but in February/early March it of course became clear that touring would be off the table for quite some time, so we almost gave up on it. I hope that this record does well enough to still be on people's minds when they're booking and planning festivals and venues again. But for now, the record's all there is. We aren't able to do any streaming since we're currently all living in different parts of the planet. Will is in Australia, I'm in Tel Aviv (although I'll be back in New York soon) and I believe Antonio is still in Mexico. We did however put together a little video for "Elli Yeled Tov," despite the distance!

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