Jacob Szekely Uses His Cello to Push the Boundaries of Jazz

Jacob SzekelyEXPAND
Jacob Szekely
Photo by Michael Roud

While cellist Jacob Szekely embraces his instrument as the lead voice in nontraditional settings, he’s consciously avoided the gimmickry often associated with such efforts. He doesn’t do anything as predictable as spit out transcriptions of Hendrix and Coltrane solos. Instead, he’s internalized their improvisational strategies and flourishes, developing a vernacular unique to the cello. In doing so, he has added another dialect to the instrument’s accepted range of expression.

The Jacob Szekely Trio is the perfect format for him to showcase his innovations. On the trio's debut album, protean keyboardist Josh Nelson (replaced by Michael Ragonese at Bluewhale this Monday) and light-touch trap drummer Christopher Aliss dial down their dynamics and overtones, enabling the cello’s frequencies to rise out of the trio. They swaddle the cello, lift it and bang against it.

The self-produced album showcases a virtuoso who places as much emphasis on the forms he’s created, as his transformative cello solos. Szekely can soar lyrically on an arco passage that would make for a thrilling tenor saxophone cadenza, channel Indian sonorities or thread his way through a pointillist thicket of rhythmic subtleties. He can trade percussive volleys with Aliss (just watch how the pair transforms Soundgarden's "Spoonman" in the brand-new video below) and dialogue with Nelson in the intuitive way that pianist Bill Evans could with bassist Scott LaFaro.

Perhaps because it’s the yeoman of the string quartet, providing the top layer of deep color and subterranean movement, the cello is seldom the first choice for a solo voice in an ensemble of any kind. Szekely is changing all that.

“My favorite composer of all time is Haydn,” he says. “He wrote incredible symphonies, some of the first tone poems, and for all intents and purposes invented the string quartet.”

Szekely’s background in long-form music profoundly influenced the contour of his pieces. “I’m interested in longer, written forms, and I like composers who range from the classic period to the minimalists. I like the composers who can impart different senses of a character as he runs through various scenes.”

Such a narrative arc is heard in the nearly eight-minute “Morning Rush,” in which Szekely touches on country string expressions, long saxophone-like lines, Hendrix fades and a Technicolor sunset of colors.

When Brooklyn-born Szekely was growing up, he heard a lot of symphonies, Jewish music and jazz in his home. His parents were immigrants, and as a budding cellist, Jacob absorbed a lot of Bartok, Beethoven and Haydn. But his father also loved Sinatra and the crooners, and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue period.

When he was 7, Szekely's parents took college jobs teaching in Kentucky, which presented him with a bit of culture shock. But in his new environment, he learned something about a different kind of vernacular music, and it broadened his outlook and tastes. But while he studied the classical literature of the cello at the Interlochen Arts Academy and USC, Szekely harbored a secret that he dared not breathe to his traditionalist professors and classmates: He listened to and loved jazz.

Szekely decided early on that the cello was his voice; it would take some time before he could reconcile the two streams. He found the violin work of early Jean-Luc Ponty (specifically King Kong, his album of Frank Zappa music) and Zbigniew Seifert liberating. “They showed me that you can develop a harmonic language of your own,” Szekely says, “and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

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Violinist Luis Mascaro works with Szekely in the String Project L.A. program, which Szekely co-founded and which teaches kids to play, compose and improvise. Says Mascaro, “What Jacob does for the cello is a milestone; nothing’s ever been done like it. He can play the chords, the walking bass and the percussion on the cello. Nobody’s pushed the boundaries of the jazz language like he has.” 

The Jacob Szekely Trio performs at Bluewhale on Monday, Oct. 12. More info.

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