Tal Wilkenfeld on life’s defining points, like auditioning for Jeff Beck in an altered state

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By Steve Newton

Tal Wilkenfeld has accomplished an awful lot since emigrating to the U.S. from Australia in 2002 as a teen. She’s performed with jazz greats Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter, and at the age of 20 recorded her 2007 debut album, the all-instrumental Transformation, which she composed, produced, arranged, and played bass on. In 2009 she was voted most exciting new player by Bass Player magazine, and now she’s on her first headlining tour, showcasing tracks from a song-oriented album set for release next year.

But the thing that really bolstered Wilkenfeld’s career was performing with Jeff Beck on various tours and high-profile gigs—including Eric Clapton’s 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival, where she played stunning bass on Beck classics like “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” and “Big Block” in front of 40,000 fans.

Wilkenfeld hooked up with Beck after bassist Pino Palladino couldn’t make a show on the guitar hero’s summer 2007 European tour. She sent Beck’s management a copy of Transformation—as well as a live recording of her jamming with the Allman Brothers on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”—and before you knew it she was on her way to England for an audition.

When Wilkenfeld calls during a West Coast tour that brings her to Vancouver’s Bilmore Cabaret tonight, she’s asked whether she was nervous trying out for a spot with the musician some rank as the world’s greatest living rock guitarist.

“I don’t remember what I was feeling,” she replies, “besides very bad food poisoning. I went on the plane and ate some sort of pizza, and I was sick the entire 10-hour flight, to the point where I had to get rushed to hospital when I landed, and was on, like, an IV drip all night.

“Then I woke up the next day and Jeff’s manager picked me up from the hospital and drove me straight to Jeff’s house, and we just played. I was so sick, it was hilarious. So I passed the audition in a very altered state.”

Wilkenfeld’s tenure with Beck has included such memorable moments as joining him and Jimmy Page at the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony—where they ripped it up on “Beck’s Bolero” and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”—and playing London’s Royal Albert Hall with David Gilmour sitting in. Though only 29, Wilkenfeld has already amassed enough career highlights that picking the main one is tricky.

“There’s just so many unique and amazing experiences that I’ve had,” she relates. “Like being food-poisoned going to audition for Jeff, or flying into England with absolutely no sleep and never having played with Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter before, then getting up and playing and having to sight-read these charts for [the A&E series] Live at Abbey Road.

“Those kind of experiences only happen once,” she adds, “and they stick in my mind for that reason, just because you get challenged to grow in those moments. Those are all the defining points in my life, because they essentially made me the musician I am today.”

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