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Ari Hoenig: Hardcore Bop

Ari Hoenig
(L to R): Orlando Le Fleming, Ari Hoenig and Gilad Hekselman

If the coining of the term “punk rock” indicated a stripping away of the stodgy habits and bloated fripperies that were plaguing rock music in the 1970s, then “Punk Bop” seems a fitting sobriquet for the band of young trailblazers that accompany Ari Hoenig on Bert’s Playground, his second release for Dreyfus Records. Though the drummer’s name stands alone on the CD’s cover, most of the musicians who play on it frequently appear live under the Punk Bop mantle.

Hoenig’s band of punks doesn’t reject or deface the tradition from which they emerge; instead, they simply aim to reinvigorate it. Bert’s Playground is unabashedly a straightahead jazz record, free of the hyphenates that distinguish the new paths traveled by many of Hoenig’s contemporaries. But it’s also undeniably aware of and impacted by those influences.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, fusion came along and was looked to as a fusing of rock and jazz,” Hoenig explains, stretched out on the couch in his Brooklyn home. “The thing is, both rock and jazz have changed so much since then that there’s another kind of fusion. I’m really influenced by that stuff-hardcore and punk and metal, as well as hip-hop, acid jazz, even drum and bass and some electronica.”

Israeli-born guitarist Gilad Hekselman, who swaps six-string duties with Jonathan Kreisberg on the CD, has his own explication of the Punk Bop name. “I think it’s bop, obviously, because it’s jazz-oriented,” Hekselman says, “and it’s punk because we all are like musical punks, pulling tricks on each other. We play in a way that’s the opposite of being totally neurotic about every note, always working shit out and making sure everything is super-clean. We take chances, like young punks. We do what we feel in the moment.”

Hoenig insists the most important factor in his own music is his ability to “feel like I can improvise freely and not like I have to stick to a style for any reason,” but he doesn’t condemn those who adhere to a more rigidly traditional form. “It doesn’t mean that those people, the ones who do it really well, don’t feel free because they play that way. That’s what they’re hearing, and I’m just expressing myself too. But they say that rock and roll is as much a way of life as it is a music, so the ‘punk’ in Punk Bop also hints at the rebellious nature that I want to come out in the music.”

It was his rebellious nature that led Hoenig to the drums in the first place. Growing up in Philadelphia, he was surrounded by a musical family, including “everybody from my half-brother to grandparents to my aunt and cousins.”

Both of his parents are classically trained musicians, his mother a violinist and pianist, his father a conductor, singer and longtime choir director. While Hoenig began studying violin and piano at the age of 4, he struggled with the rote learning and leapt at the opportunity when his parents asked him, at the age of 12, to choose his own instrument.

“I actually didn’t have a huge desire to play drums, but I did have a desire not to play piano anymore,” Hoenig recalls. “And the drums were an instrument that neither of them knew anything about. … Both of them play piano very fluidly and my mom’s a professional violinist, so I couldn’t do anything that they didn’t know how to do. I couldn’t be myself. I just wanted to do something different and not have them breathing down my neck while I was practicing.”

Besides, Hoenig was a young rock music fan, like most of his friends, and the drums were something he heard in the popular music he actually listened to. So he embraced the instrument instantly, slowly gathering a complete kit as each Christmas rolled around. Throughout his school years he played in both rock and jazz bands, the latter largely through school and youth programs.

“When I was a junior in high school,” Hoenig recalls, “I had a teacher who told me, ‘You’re very talented, but you’re going to have to pick what kind of music you want to play and really give that everything to pursue it.’ I remember thinking at that time, ‘Why can’t I do both? Why would I have to choose?’ And I never did.”

Hoenig continues to enjoy writing pop songs for his own amusement, though he has no desire to resume a sideline career in the rock world. “Rock is very limiting musically,” he says. “You perform a song and you’re going to do it tomorrow the same way you did it today. That’s not what I want to do. It’s kind of like sports-you can like playing sports but not like watching it on TV.”

By the time he was a senior in high school, Hoenig had set his sights on becoming a professional jazz drummer, and after graduation attended the University of North Texas, where he was in for something of a culture shock. “It was like jumping into a world that’s just music all day and all night,” he says. “The town is unbelievable. I recommend it for anybody who’s thinking of going to school for music, because you’re just immersed in music from beginning to end. It could be in the lobby of your dorm room or festivals outside in the street.”

Convinced that New York was the obvious place for a jazz musician to make his name, Hoenig headed back east after three years in Texas, spending a year in Paterson, N.J., before finally making the move to Brooklyn. For his first year, he spent virtually every weekend heading back to play in Philly, and was invited out for a tour with organist Shirley Scott. “Gradually those gigs were replaced by gigs in New York,” he says. “I remember doing six, seven, eight gigs a week regularly, a lot of times for tips. But I loved it. I was doing what I wanted to do, and I was definitely getting better just by the experience of playing so much. And getting stronger because of all the drums that I moved from my car.”

That intensive schedule persisted for years, with Hoenig rapidly becoming one of the most in-demand sidemen in New York. In 1994, during a jam session at Smalls, he formed one of his most important and longest-running musical partnerships.

“I was playing ‘Well You Needn’t,'” remembers pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, “and I heard this drumming and thought, ‘Wow, that doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before here, or anywhere else for that matter.’ I didn’t even know what the guy looked like, so we did the whole tune and I looked and it was Ari.”

The relationship forged spontaneously on the bandstand that night has continued through the present day, with each playing in the other’s bands and finally deciding to co-lead a group called the Hoenig-Pilc Project. Typically a trio completed by bassist Hans Glawischnig, the Project has recently expanded to include guitarist Wayne Krantz, and Pilc sees the lineup as malleable.

“If we were not as tied by music as we are, maybe we wouldn’t be the same friends,” Pilc says. “We’re not of the same generation and Ari’s a very different person from me, but when music takes over we don’t exist anymore. What exists is this big wave around us and I don’t even think of the individuals who are emitting that wave. When I started playing ‘Well, You Needn’t’ with him at my back, I didn’t know the guy. He could have been old, black, young, short, ugly, beautiful-I had no idea, but I fell in love with the music.”

“The more a band plays together, the deeper the music,” Hoenig says. He and Pilc “both have a good memory of what we’ve done musically, and we consciously try not to repeat ourselves and do something different every single time. After playing thousands of concerts together it gets harder and harder, but that’s what the creative process is about.”

Another lasting collaboration began a few years later, when pianist Kenny Werner tapped Hoenig and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller for his trio. At the time, Werner was playing with Billy Hart and Drew Gress, but the younger duo was frequently showing up at his house to play. So when Hart and Gress couldn’t make a planned week of dates in Paris, Hoenig and Weidenmueller were drafted.

“In the middle of that week,” Werner says, “I felt like what we were doing was already so distinctive and so reactive that I declared that to be my trio. My music is a little complex for some, but it wasn’t much of a challenge for Ari. That meant that he could make music with it immediately. But on top of that, and unlike some drummers that can play that kind of stuff, he had a great groove-he could swing his ass off if he needed to.”

Werner describes himself as a reactive player, and was attracted to Hoenig for the amount of react-able material his drumming provided. “Ari doesn’t just play a beat,” Werner says. “He plays ideas. Phrases. Thoughts. And then you start reacting to those phrases and thoughts, and you have a music that has an extra dimension from just a normal trio. With some guys, it’s a challenge because they play with their own inner vision and integrity. You can hire them or not, but that’s the way they’re going to play. And that’s what I really like because it forces me to grow.”

Over the past year, Hoenig has shifted his focus more intensely on heading his own bands. He tours primarily as a leader these days, as opposed to his years logging long hours and frequent flyer miles as a sideman. Bert’s Playground encompasses a range of his interests, from standards to Coltrane and Shorter tunes to his own vivid originals, which reveal traces of his diverse interests without detouring from his improvisational dynamic for the sake of stylistic twists. Along with his various Punk Bop bandmates-altoist Will Vinson, Matt Penman and Orlando Le Fleming alternating the bass role as Kreisberg and Hekselman do the guitars-saxophonist Chris Potter steps in for three tracks, a fellow traveler on the road to lending a rock edge to jazz. And Hoenig shows off his own virtuosity with a solo drum rendition of “‘Round Midnight.”

As a bandleader, Hoenig guides his ensembles like a stunt rider in a rodeo, letting this wild thing run its own course while keeping a guiding grip on the reins. It’s an approach that results in a focused spontaneity, a sense of purpose with limitless opportunity for surprise.

That playfulness is captured by the album’s title. Though it’s named for a childhood pet goldfish and not for an actual playground, it still carries the suggestion of youthful abandon, a carefree approach to the band’s enthusiastic interplay.

“Anything that anybody in the band suggests can take the music in a different direction,” Hekselman says of Hoenig’s approach. “It’s never set in stone, and there’s always little games, little jokes. His style is definitely very humoristic. It can get very serious, but it has a sense of humor.”

Beyond his melodic, combustible drumming, Hoenig has long evoked reaction from the sheer physicality of his playing. Behind the kit he’s a long-limbed perpetual-motion machine, his ever-present grimace evidencing an intense state of responsiveness.

“Being able to have the emotion come out in a natural way actually changes me physically,” Hoenig says, “but it’s not something that I’ve learned or tried to do in any way. If anything, I’ve tried to prevent the emotion from taking over to the point where it’s making it harder to play. I can control it when I’m practicing or when I’m playing a session, but when the music gets into the zone, then something else starts to take over.”

“It’s inspiring to see somebody getting so emotionally into this world,” Hekselman says, “almost like he’s becoming a tool for the music. Obviously when you’re on the bandstand with somebody who gives all he’s got to the music, you want to do the same.”

As Werner points out, however, Hoenig’s muscularity with the sticks does not translate to a reduction in his dynamic range. “The funny thing is,” Werner says, “he can play [with] that intensity at any volume. Some people play physically and it forces a certain dynamic, but as physical as Ari is, he can whisper and still have the same energy as if he was bashing.”

What Hoenig’s animated style most expresses is his excitement at the give and take between musicians. His stated goal in any music he creates is to foster a conversation, and he chooses his sidemen with that goal in mind.

“I picked people for this band who I think really listen hard and react,” Hoenig says. “You can throw something at them and they’ll be able to absorb it and throw something back at you, no matter what it is.”

“I think that Ari has really set up a situation with his own band where he can fully express his ideas,” says Kreisberg. “He’s also surrounded himself with great like-minded players who also enjoy pushing the envelope. His writing, like his playing, can be very complex. He knows the tradition, but he’s primarily interested in finding music on his own terms. Part of that is his uncanny mathematical abilities, but the other part is that he is able to translate these hyper-complex polyrhythmic ideas into the language of emotions. Whether they ‘get’ what he’s doing or not, people feel things when they hear him play.”

While his records offer the ability to analyze Hoenig’s complex approach, his is a style that demands to be seen live. It’s an element of job security in an age when recorded jazz is foundering, as Hoenig recognizes. “I’ve always thought of myself as more of a live performer than a recording artist,” he says. “So the whole direction the industry’s going in doesn’t affect me personally that much, because there’s always going to be demand to see live music. You can’t download a live virtual experience of being in a place listening to music-at least not yet. Maybe when they figure out a way to hook these things into your brain, there’ll be a way to do it. And when that day comes, I’ll just retire and plug myself into all the concerts I want to see.”


Yamaha “Absolute Maple” Drums:

18×14-inch Bass Drum

12×8 Tom

14×14 Floor Tom

14×5 1/2 Bamboo Snare Drum

Yamaha Hardware:

CL-945L Tom Arm

SS-940 Snare Drum Stand

HS-950 Hi-Hat Stand

DS-840 Drum Throne

FP-8110 Foot Pedal

Zildjian Cymbals:

Hi-Hats: 14-inch New Beat, bottom; 14-inch Avedis Zildjian, top

22-inch Avedis Zildjian Canadian Ride

20-inch Constantinople or 22-inch Left Side Ride

Hoenig also endorses the Tangereens Percussion Stick

Read Evan Haga’s interview with Iggy Pop on jazz. Originally Published

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.