Ari Hoenig

His success proves that if you’re resourceful and persistent, you can make your way in New York City perfecting your own style, your own music, and your own way of life.

Story by Ken Micallef
Photos by Rahav Segev

The Pauper & the Magician, Ari Hoenig’s tenth album as a leader, is a perfect platform for the veteran jazz musician’s many skills. Hoenig’s coherent compositional style, choice of brilliant and simpatico musicians, and white-hot drumming fill the album. Its title track courses through a gentle bolero to a playful through-composed section and rhythmically rambunctious solos. “I’ll Think About It” blends up-tempo jazz and daring time conceptions. “The Other” extends a 17/16 time signature over a 4/4 pulse. And Hoenig performs the 1939 folk classic “You Are My Sunshine” as a drum solo vehicle, speaking the melody as clearly as the rhythm. It’s all performed with his trademark sensitivity, dynamics, and intimate sense of burn.

Hoenig’s twelve-years-and-counting residency at Smalls Jazz Club in New York’s Greenwich Village includes his various groups as well as the players on The Pauper & the Magician: guitarist Gilad Hekselman, saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, pianist Shai Maestro, and bassist Orlando le Fleming. Hoenig remains a busy sideman, his tenure in such groups as the Kenny Werner Trio and Jean-Michel Pilc’s Total Madness allowing him the freedom to have both stability and an open-ended contract. Always ready to push the extremes, Ari co-leads Nasty Factorz, a duo with Gaël Horellou that combines jazz drumming and saxophones with saturated electronic effects.

MD: You created a dramatic promotional video for your new album. That’s unusual in jazz.

Ari: A friend shot our recording sessions and also created a video, a trailer. I just had to feed everyone! It was fun and different. I make up stories for my daughters, and “the pauper” and “the magician” are two of the characters. The album is a multitude of stories.

MD: When booking work, is a video like that part of the package for promoters?

Ari: Generally not. These days I can luckily get gigs by reputation. And a lot of venues may not be that open to hearing new things that often. The trailer video hasn’t helped me get gigs; it was more for promotion of the record.

MD: Do you feel you need to present the story behind the new album to club owners and promoters to set your music apart?

Ari: It’s really all about the music, but publicists think differently. Musicians believe their music should be enough to speak for them. That’s totally true. It should. But it’s [also] probably rare that music in itself will be enough to get through people’s attention spans. It’s one of the sad things we deal with today.

The Magician & Pauper Sessions

MD: A few threads run throughout your new album, including this mind-blowing band and the intricate arrangements and in-depth compositions.

Ari: I wrote the music for this group; some songs are more through-arranged and through-composed, but the story of the pauper and the magician ties it all together. It’s my shortest record. I actually recorded enough for two records during those sessions. The second half is all standards. Those will be released in next year’s album, including originals.

MD: Does the imagery of the title conjure the music?

Ari: Not as a band. I wrote those songs a year before we recorded. A couple songs, “Lyric” and “Alana,” are named for my daughters. It’s fairly abstract overall.

MD: The title track includes a bolero, and it’s through-composed.

Ari: “The Pauper and the Magician” is essentially two things in one; it’s influenced by Charles Ives, who wrote a piece that included visualizations. As one marching band comes into view you hear the other band approaching. Eventually one band becomes prominent.

There’s two different, distinct feels or grooves that fit together in my piece. The opening bolero is in a triplet or 12/8 feel. Then over that you hear quintuplets from the next band, so to speak, coming down the street. They’re quintuplets grouped in triplets—or sextuplets grouped in five. The difference is whether you’re hearing it in six or five. You can hear it either way.

MD: “I’ll Think About It” is in a straight-ahead style, finishing with a drum solo. So much clarity, and great dynamics. Is that solo based on four-way coordination?

Ari: I can’t remember what the solo sounds like! But I have a way of playing over rhythm changes, which is what that track is. I enjoy working with four-way coordination. Drummers have learned to play so fast and loud and strong. Where I want to progress, and where there’s so much room to expand, is with coordination. We haven’t really taken coordination that far. Rhythm too—we have really just scraped the surface.

MD: Is “The Other” in 4/4?

Ari: “The Other” can also be heard in two ways. The bass line is in seventeen, and the band is playing in that time signature for much of the song. As the song progresses it becomes more of a 17/16 over 4/4. The bass line stays in seventeen to the 16th note over 4/4. It creates a kind of long loop. There’s also a metal section that’s in 4/4. That comes from my love of Meshuggah.

MD: Your cymbal playing in “Alana” really speaks. Are you using the metal ring from the brush’s handle there?

Ari: Yeah, that gives you a very legato sound. Clarity in general is important to me. Anything I play I try to play clearly. Playing with the metal ring out of the brush handle can give you clarity. You can also scrape it on the cymbal or use it to actually strike the cymbal or the bell. I do that quite a bit.

MD: Did you focus on dynamics to achieve that high level of clarity in your drumming?

Ari: Working on dynamics came from some steady gigs I had during college. I had to play at a soft dynamic for the whole night. We could play anything we wanted, but it couldn’t be loud.

To the Bosphorus

MD: Why do you play Bosphorus cymbals?

Ari: I have a signature line of Bosphorus cymbals, the Lyric series. It’s three cymbals: two ride cymbals and a hi-hat. I spent two days in the Bosphorus factory in Istanbul deciding what I wanted. I went through a lot of cymbals to find something in the ballpark of what I was hearing. I might find a dozen cymbals that I like. Then it was about changing them. They can do anything you want with a cymbal.

MD: Did you give specific directions?

Ari: I learned to use specific words to describe the sound I was hearing. Bosphorus can match any sound you want. I brought a couple cymbals with me that I liked, an old Canadian Zildjian and a Meinl Dragon crash/ride. Bosphorus had ideas and they heard what I was playing; they made something similar to those, and then I made alterations. They didn’t emulate the cymbals I brought, but they could be used the same way and had a similar vibe. The final cymbals didn’t sound anything like the ones I brought as references. I love them and play them all the time. I can use them for electronic or groove or funk and jazz.

MD: Does your daughter know the cymbals are named after her?

Ari: She thinks she’s named after the cymbals. [laughs]

Drumming as Folk Music

MD: You perform “You Are My Sunshine” as a drum song, basically. You’ve recorded two albums where you play drum solos as songs. That ties you to tradition; that’s something Jo Jones might have done.

Ari: Those are my first two records, Jazzheads and Time Travels, the solo drumming albums. Making music by myself has always been an important part of who I am as a musician. I feel that I have more to offer in that setting than just as a drummer. I can make music alone—it might not be flashy, or cutting edge, but musically I can really say something and make a statement. Usually that comes from playing a song and having the song be very clear and singable. We had a nice moment recently at Smalls where I played “You Are My Sunshine” and the audience sang along and did a whole chorus.

MD: It’s harder than it looks to play a melody on the drums clearly and consistently.

Ari: It’s something that I have strongly in my ear, but it’s taken practice to be able to become comfortable playing on the drums and improvising as well.

MD: I like that it’s unhip, in a way. Everyone in New York City is so hip. It’s bold to play a simple folk song.

Ari: And it’s so musically effective. You can be really musically effective without being hip. Or maybe it is hip. It gives you the possibility to really connect with people. Connecting emotionally with people is one of the beauties of what I try to do. I always try to do that. A lot of it is contrast as well. You can’t do it all night to be effective.

SingleMinded Practice

MD: What do you practice now?

Ari: Generally I’m working on coordination. It’s important for me not to work on a lot of things at once but really develop one thing as far as I can. Currently I’m working on playing a 3/4 ostinato and then comping in various rhythms with that. It’s a lot to do with coordination. I also play a simple linear funk groove and then, taking one limb—my hand on the ride, for instance—I work on all the variations I can play with that, keeping all the other limbs the same. It’s based on ostinatos and coordination; I don’t want to think in licks.

If you focus on one thing, then you can just change one small element to make it different. That’s a more musically effective approach, because it gives you something to build on. It’s theme and development. When you develop something, changing one element and seeing how it feels can lead to improvement. Practicing one thing can help you more than practicing many things.

MD: You’re a serious jazz drummer, but you only use matched grip?

Ari: I never use traditional grip, though I used to play brushes with traditional grip. A lot of drummers in jazz use matched; there are differences, but I don’t feel one grip is clearly better. There may be specific things one grip is better for than another, but the differences are very slight. I’ve never felt I had to overcome anything because I play matched grip.

Home Alone!

MD: Is booking a jazz group tough these days?

Ari: Honestly, I haven’t tried for a long time. Having the Smalls residency means I don’t have to call clubs and booking agents. I’ve done a lot of tours with my groups in the past, but I’m not actively booking now. I got burnt out with that process. I’m at my best when playing a lot locally. I don’t have an urge to hit the road. Take Paul Motian as an example. He kept playing, but he didn’t tour. If you wanted to see Paul, you had to come to New York City. And people did. Let the other musicians get on the plane! The conditions for touring aren’t quite as they should be, and I’m spoiled being at home. That’s working just fine for me.

Hoenig’s Setup

Drums: Yamaha Maple Absolute
A. 8×14 snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 14×14 floor tom
D. 14×18 bass drum

Cymbals: Bosphorus Lyric series
1. 14″ Ari Hoenig Signature hi-hats
2. 21″ Ari Hoenig Signature crash/ride
3. 23″ Ari Hoenig Signature ride

Heads: Evans, including Level 360 prototype snare batter and Clear 300 resonant, Level 360 Coated G1 tom batters, and Level 360 G1 bass drum batter

Sticks: Vater Sugar Maple Fusion sticks, Wire Tap standard retractable brushes, and T7 mallets