There is nothing unusual about drummers as leaders (Blakey, Max Roach, Roy Haynes), or drummers taking less-traveled roads while soloing (Eric Harland, Brian Blade). Ari Hoenig follows both these arcs on Inversations, although there's no question the former Joe Lovano sideman works to separate himself from the current pack.
Hoenig and his compatriots, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, bassist Johannes Weidenmueller, are thinking outside the box from the jump, starting with their take on the Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie proto-bop composition "Anthropology. The bop attitude is there, but the music is filtered through an avant-garde sensibility that makes the base tune unrecognizable... and I mean that in a good way. Reimagining something that was a reimagination to start with (as Bird and Dizzy's early experiments were) takes serious courage, something that is in plentiful supply on Inversations.
Like I said earlier, there are more than a few drummers who take their kit out on the razor's edge when it comes to their solo spot; Hoening doesn't settle for that style of freedom, though he certainly exercises it on the whirling "Rapscallion Cattle and the multi-time signature "New Found Innocence. He also makes the choice to do more with less, painting beautiful brushwork onto "Dark News and hand-drumming a perfect foundation for Rodgers & Hart's "Falling in Love with Love.
But at several points, Hoenig's solo is an actual solo: he is in tight, guitar-like unison with Pilc on the opening to "Anthropology, and his tom-tom chorus on "WB Blues sounds like a subtle, spare piano line. Hoenig's unaccompanied take on the closer "This Little Light of Mine is simple, comping on the bass drum while playing the melody on the tom toms. He even sings one chorus, albeit off-mic. The point is not that he's not a singer, it's that he is letting his light shine in his own way.
Pilc is a bright light in his own right, and his work here is extraordinary. His solo on "New Found Innocence builds with a volcanic creativity, and his work on "Falling in Love keeps us within shouting distance of the song's original intent, but still stays on its own path. Hoenig plays in the Jean-Michel Pilc Trio, so the chemistry between drummer and pianist comes as no surprise. The energy they generate on "Farewell is so immense, it's a wonder Weidenmueller wasn't blown through the studio wall. The bassist holds his own, though, and his bowed intro to "Dark News helps send the tune even farther off-kilter.
Reedmen Will Vinson and Jacques Schwartz-Bart's respective cameos add richness to the overall color palette, and I would have liked to see Hoenig do more in the quartet format. Apart from that, Inversations is a fine reminder that sometimes the best creative road is off-road, particularly when you've got a driver who isn't risk-averse. So sit down, strap in, shut up and hold on!
Personnel: Ari Hoenig: drums, vocals; Jean-Michel Pilc: piano; Johannes Weidenmueller: bass; Will Vinson: alto sax (3); Jacques Schwarz-Bart: tenor sax (7).