No one really knows where musical genius comes from. Genetics. Pushy parents. An infancy steeped in recorded sound. A combination of those, perhaps, or none of them at all. In my family, there is a ritual: late at night, after Family Guy, out comes the DVD of Jeff Beck’s residency at Ronnie Scott’s, recorded in 2008.
The feathery-haired guitar pioneer, then aged 63, with his sinewy arms windmilling like whammy bars, presents his protégé, Tal Wilkenfeld, on electric bass. She is 21 years old – “I looked 12,” she admits – and make-up-less with jeans and corkscrew curls. She takes an extended jazz break in Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” while the audience – which includes Robert Plant and Eric Clapton – begin to glance at each other. As her solo reaches its exquisite climax, she looks up at Beck with a strange expression of surprise and defiance, like they’re the only two people in the world.
By this point Wilkenfeld, who was born in Sydney in 1986, had already played with the Allman Brothers and Chick Corea. She owned just three CDs growing up – by Jimi Hendrix, Rage Against the Machine and Herbie Hancock – and she didn’t pick up a guitar till she was 14. Like the bassist Jaco Pastorius, to whom she’s been compared, competitive athletics were her thing. She injured herself long-distance running – determined to beat another girl, she did a little victory dance instead of a warm-down when she won the race – and had to find something else to get obsessed with. When she casually picked up a guitar one day and played a chord on it, she started crying: “It didn’t feel temporary,” she explains. “It was a connection back to myself. ”
Wilkenfeld talks to me in the offices of her record label, holding a teaspoon, never quite able to start her tea. Her parents would only let her play for 30 minutes a day, hoping she’d pursue a more academic path. When she escaped at 16 and won a scholarship to the Los Angeles College of Music, she defied them by practising six hours a day, determined to become “as fluent as I am in English” – and injured herself again, in the hand, by doing so.
She became known as “Little Vinnie”, a reference to the jazz drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, for her polyrhythmic playing, and ended up in a band with him a few years later. That was the kind of musician that interested her: when she met Mick Jagger, she didn’t know who he was.
Dressed head to toe in camel colours and swinging a tiny handbag on a chain, Wilkenfeld is now 32 and promoting a solo record, Love Remains, while exploring Europe “off the clock”. Her voice is low, with only a tiny trace of the Sydney she left behind. When my brother was in his twenties, he did a short course at the Bass Collective – a New York school dedicated to the instrument – and Tal was in his year. The only girl (she’d have been 18) and rather aloof, she was so far ahead of the other students, she might as well have been teaching.
When I ask her to explain the aching paucity of female jazz instrumental players in the public eye she struggles to answer because she has “never thought of myself as female or male”. I’ve heard many artists make this point and I’ve always wondered whether it’s truly understood. Wilkenfeld got where she did by tracking down the musicians that inspired her – Hancock, Prince, Jackson Brown, Tom Petty – and playing with them; their artistic sensibilities were also hers, no matter that they were men born almost exclusively in the 1940s, with decades of experience at their backs.
On stage looking out, she would forget she wasn’t one of the “dudes”. When I ask what Jeff Beck taught her she says that what you learn from a musician is absorbed on stage by communicating musically and can’t be put into words. “Two souls meeting.” She’s seeing him later, in town.
That night, Wilkenfeld headlines Ronnie Scott’s with her new material, a hybrid of love songs, polyrhythms, metal riffs and grunge (which sank into her consciousness working in McDonald’s in Sydney and hearing Incubus on the radio). In the crowd are some older men who probably saw her playing here with Beck in 2008. They look a bit surprised.
Love Remains is out now on BMG records
This article appears in the 20 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over