Jazz drummer Ari Hoenig visits home and looks to the future with two gigs at Chris’ this weekend

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Photo via arihoenig.com
Photo via arihoenig.com

Though he’s lived in New York for the better part of twenty years now, drummer Ari Hoenig still looks forward to playing for audiences in his hometown, Philadelphia. A Mt. Airy native, Hoenig sharpened his skills during the legendary jam sessions at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus.

“I can feel the history of the music when I’m playing in Philadelphia because the audience has a history with that music,” Hoenig says. “They feel the songs more than an audience of people who appreciate the art form but don’t really have a history with it. If you play a standard, they’ll immediately make a connection in their head and have an experience to go with it.”

That’s unique to the city where he was raised, Hoenig continues, which is one reason he continues to trek back to play at Chris’ Jazz Café several times a year. He can always be found on the bandstand there around Christmastime, as he will tonight and tomorrow night with his latest quartet. “I feel at home at Chris’,” he says. “It feels less like a concert scenario because it’s more relaxed and you get to hang out and talk to people. I’ve always really liked it but I think it’s getting better and better. It’s developing into something of an institution in Philadelphia.”

Back in NYC, the 40-year-old drummer has another home base, at the Greenwich Village club Smalls. He’s been performing and sitting in at jam sessions there for most of his time in the city, and these days anchors Smalls’ Monday night line-up. It was there, during the regular jam session that follows his own gig, that Hoenig first heard the young tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, who will be joining him this weekend at Chris’. Hoenig immediately heard promise in Pennicott’s sound, a judgment validated when the saxophonist placed second in this year’s Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.

“He’s probably the most interactive saxophonist that I’ve played with,” Hoenig says. “He has a great capacity for understanding what he hears, so it makes it really easy to communicate just through music. It’s really important to me when I’m playing with a band to create something different night after night, even with the same songs.”

The quartet is completed by two Israeli-born musicians: bassist Noam Wiesenberg and guitarist Gilad Hekselman, the latter a longtime collaborator. Hoenig, who also works regularly with Israeli pianist Shai Maestro, says his connection with New York’s thriving Israeli jazz community is pure coincidence, reminiscent of the period a few years ago when he suddenly found himself working with a number of French jazz expats, largely through his creative partnership with pianist Jean-Michel Pilc.

Hoenig grew up in a musical household, and his interest in jazz drumming was both a reflection and a rejection of that upbringing. Both of his parents are classically trained musicians, his mother a violinist and pianist, his father a conductor, singer, and longtime choir director. He began studying violin and piano at the age of four, but when he turned 12 and his parents asked him to choose an instrument, he impulsively selected the drums – if only to put a halt to piano lessons.

A fan of rock music as a kid, Hoenig never understood why he should have to choose one style of music over another, and his playing reflects his lack of interest in boundaries. But he gradually added virtuosity to enthusiasm, attending the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts in the summer of 1990 and then attending the University of North Texas. From there he made his move to New York, though for the first several years he commuted back home to Philly most weekends, where gigs were more forthcoming. He gradually made his name in his adopted city, however, forging collaborations with the likes of Pilc, pianist Kenny Werner, guitarist Wayne Krantz, and saxophonists Chris Potter and Joshua Redman.

Hoenig will be debuting a number of new compositions this weekend, in preparation for a planned recording in the near future. The new music, he says, builds on the sound he’d been developing over the course of his last few records, an approach that he occasionally christened “Punk Bop.” That title had more to do with attitude than with sound, as Hoenig and his bandmates took a slightly more irreverent approach to straightahead jazz. In some ways, it’s epitomized more by Hoenig’s famous physicality than by the music it produces. But he’s continuing to draw on a number of different musical inspirations for his writing, including death metal – a connection that may not be as far-fetched as it at first sounds.

“That music is really progressing a lot,” Hoenig says of the modern metal scene. “It’s interesting to see where it’s going, and one of the main reasons is because it’s music made by bands. When you play in a metal band, that’s all you do – you play in this one band. I think that does interesting things for the music, because it gives you real empathy with the people who you’re playing with. You really understand them and you can get into other spaces where you’re really intuitive. There are certain depths that you just won’t get to playing with different groups and different musicians all the time.”

It’s difficult to maintain that kind of longevity in the modern jazz landscape, and while Hoenig doesn’t have a single longstanding band, he does maintain ties with a small group of musicians with whom he’s been working and evolving regularly. That camaraderie is typically reflected in the vigorous, explosive qualities of Hoenig’s bands, which he spurs to increasing degrees with his own muscular drumming.

This weekend will provide a peek into what Hoenig’s next release may sound like, though he has a number of other projects and sideman gigs hovering in the weeks. Most intriguingly, Wiesenberg is currently in the process of arranging some of Hoenig’s compositions for big band.

It’s now been more than two years since the release of his last CD, 2011’s Lines of Oppression. The long hiatus is due in part to a newborn baby, but largely to the fact that Hoenig has always seen himself as more of a performing than a recording musician. “I haven’t actually had the music to record, and I didn’t really feel like I just wanted to make a record of standards,” he says. “I don’t feel like I need to put out a record every year just to have it, and when I do it I really want to do it well.”

Ari Hoenig performs tonight at 8 and 10 p.m. and tomorrow at 8 and 10 p.m. at Chris’ Jazz Cafe, 1421 Sansom Street. More information can be found at chrisjazzcafe.com.

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