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Imaginative, Interactive and Intensely Committed: Drummer Ari Hoenig’s Trio Comes To Bop Stop

Ari Hoenig Trio
Ben Tiberio, Ari Hoenig, Gadi Lehavi

At Ari Hoenig’s website, you’ll find several items of apparel for sale. One of them is a t-shirt, black, of course, with a photo of Hoenig at the drum kit and the legend, “I’m not angry. That’s just my face!”

Intensity has been a hallmark of Hoenig’s career. For the New York Times in 2009, Ben Ratliff wrote, “Ari Hoenig has a slightly compulsive relationship with his drum set.” If you’ve seen him play, you’ll know what Ratliff meant, and if you haven’t, Hoenig’s weekend appearance at Bop Stop offers a fine introduction to his imaginative, highly interactive and yes, intensely committed style.

And fearsome t-shirt glower notwithstanding, the 49-year-old Philadelphia native was an engaging interview, his conversational turns as unexpected and witty as his drumming. When I asked if the merch in question was an ironic bit of self-deprecation, he laughed and said, “Yeah, totally. I mean, it’s all in good fun.”

And good fun is always on Hoenig’s setlist. Yet he is deeply serious about his craft. On You Are The Song (Justin Time Records, 2023) a recording I reviewed for All About Jazz here, Hoenig, bassist Francois Moutin and pianist Jean-Michel Pilc chase each other around for an exhilarating series of first-takes only to end on a ballad medley sensitively shaped by the drummer’s exquisite brushes.

Much about that record is delightfully unconventional, and one could say the same about Hoenig’s career path. The child of a choral conductor and a classically trained violinist, he took kid piano lessons but didn’t feel like he had good teachers and by his own admission, didn’t learn a lot.

But the drums captivated him in early adolescence and he got up to speed on them quickly, eventually commanding the coveted drum chair in the University of North Texas’ One O’Clock Lab Band. Moving to New York, Hoenig played with musicians as varied as the genre-surfing keyboard player Robert Glasper, old school organist Shirley Scott and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. The latter two are fellow Philadelphians as are two drummers who helped to mold Hoenig’s drum style: Mickey Roker and Byron Landham.

Hoenig also leads ensembles of varying sizes, including a series of trios. The trio he will bring to Bop Stop was formed during the pandemic and features bassist Ben Tiberio and the brilliant young pianist Gadi Lehavi, one of the Israeli musicians that have recently energized the New York scene. “I could tell from playing with Gadi that he has all the things that I like about a piano player,” Hoenig said by phone. “He’s very quick to react and really swinging and very communicative, clear and conversational.”

That last quality is crucial to Hoenig’s style and by extension, the band’s approach to jazz. On the trio’s debut recording Golden Treasures (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2022), Hoenig, Lehavi and Tiberio dig into a book of mostly familiar standards and jazz chestnuts and emerge with arrangements of startling originality. In the middle of all of them are Hoenig’s drums, prodding, commenting and making sudden changes in focus like a restless documentary film camera eager to take in everything in its field of vision. It’s an approach that takes the innovations of Bill Evans’ revolutionary piano trios as a point of departure and magnifies its radical democracy.

At Bop Stop, Hoenig and the trio might play some of the material from “Golden Treasures,” but they are not touring to support the recording. “We probably have about 60 tunes that we all know together, and I would say probably 30 or 35 of those are originals of my music,” Hoenig said. “The other ones are arrangements that I’ve made of standards. A lot of them are on records and some of them are not yet on records. For me, the process is less this obvious thing where you make a record and then tour playing the tunes on the record. I do that to an extent sometimes, but what I do more, what’s more important, is that I tour, I play new music, and then I record a record after that.”

Ever restless and curious, Hoenig has returned to his first instrument, using the pandemic-enforced suspension of live gigs to knock the rust off his piano chops. He’s become so proficient so quickly that he’s played some piano trio gigs.

“I play a lot with my students now, but the guy that I play with when I have a gig, in my piano trio is Dennis Bulhões,” Hoenig said. I certainly want to be comfortable with good people to play with, but I need a good drummer to really be able to shine.”

Ari Hoenig Trio Friday, July 21, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. (separate seatings) at Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland $30 (first seating) and $25 (second seating) available here.

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