Ari Hoenig Quartet: Niu's Jazz & Blues Bar, Bangkok

Ian Patterson BY

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Ari Hoenig Quartet
Niu's Jazz & Blues Bar
Silom, Bangkok, Thailand
November 5, 2009

There is no other drummer quite like New Yorker Ari Hoenig. Watching him play is like marveling at a cross between Animal, the wild drummer of Muppets fame, and Max Roach. His approach to drumming is intense above all, ferocious even at times, and yet his harmonic manipulation of his kit is subtlety itself. The crowd at Niu's Jazz & Blues Bar saw both faces of Hoenig on the opener, an original take on Charlie Parker's eternally popular "Billie's Bounce." Barely a couple of minutes into the song the collective energy of the quartet and tenor saxophonist Jamie Oehlers's gale of a solo brought spontaneous cheers of approval. It was that kind of gig.

Hoenig's dissection and reconstruction of Charlie Parker, playing with time, and switching from blistering attack to brushes was indication of a composer of original design. Little was predictable about this interpretation or the set as a whole, as Hoenig's rhythms pulled the quartet this way and that. With Orlando le Fleming providing solid and undemonstrative support, the main attraction was watching the interplay between Heonig and the impressive guitarist Gilad Hekselman. Sounding influenced by early Pat Metheny, Hekselman has nevertheless a personal style and impressed both as accompanist, with an impressionistic touch, and as a soloist of some imagination. Hekselman barely diverted his eyes from Hoenig, communicating every note, and the interaction between the pair was such that it was not always clear who was leading and who was following.

Hoenig's drumming, mesmerizing, as it was throughout the evening, could not overshadow his role as a composer. The evolving structure within every song, and the diversity of the music from one composition to the next was notable. The powerful "Seraphic" began life as a delicate ballad but soon changed character, attaining great intensity, with an irresistible motif repeated on sax as Hekselman dropped in some heavy chords and trippy little runs. Explosive drumming ended with Hoenig literally leaping off his stool to thrash a final exclamation from his kit. The sunny, almost Caribbean "The Painter" featured extended solos, first from Hekselman which underlined why this talented musician has been sought after by the likes of Chris Potter and Jeff "Tain" Watts, and then by Oehlers, who brought a muscularity to the front line.

Most visiting jazz artists to Thailand include one of the King's many jazz compositions in their set. It is a crowd pleaser and is seen as a mark of respect towards a monarch who has been on the throne since 1946 and who is revered almost as a living deity by Thais. One of the King's best known composition, "His Majesty's Blues"is unquestionably beautiful and has been interpreted many times, but probably never as Hoenig's quartet did. Hoenig played the melody on his drum kit, using hands and elbows to alter the pitch of the skins. When the quartet picked up the tune it developed into a lovely Parkeresque walking blues, with Oehlers again stirring the crowd. Hekselman followed, carving out a wonderfully inventive solo of his own which meandered slowly over interesting terrain for some time before stepping on the gas towards the end.

In between sets I had the chance to chat with Joachim Schulz, owner of Niu's Jazz & Blues bar, which also boasts one of the city's finest Italian restaurants upstairs, and promoter Mark Bolam of Enlightened Planet. Schulz explained how little money or effort has been spared to make this venue acoustically sound, something which was not lost on the musicians.

In the tradition of a New York jazz club Niu's is intimate, with seating for just sixty five, and is extremely comfortable with a cozy candlelit ambiance. In two short years Niu's, which hosts jazz concerts nightly, has become the premier jazz venue in Bangkok. Given the lack of serious jazz venues here this might not mean a lot in itself, but that the venue has attracted the likes of James Carter and Tim Garland's Lighthouse Trio is something of which Schultz is justifiably proud. His ambition is to bring a top international jazz name to Niu's on a monthly basis.

Bolam, an almost lone figure in bringing quality jazz to Thailand (Billy Cobham, Bill Bruford's Earthworks, John Scofield &Joe Lovano, and Scott Henderson's trio) has been instrumental in the early musical successes of Niu's and these two irrepressible music lovers may yet between them turn Bangkok into a major port of call for the best up-and-coming jazz artists from around the world.

The second set began with another Charlie Parker tune, a barnstorming twenty minute interpretation of "Anthropology" the highlight of which was Hoenig's drum solo. It began as a hi-hat solo which was breathtaking for its speed and ingenuity, and it recalled the genius of Max Roach who was famous for just such a routine. The intensity hardly let up on "Ramison's Brew," with fine playing all round and more exhilarating drumming from Hoenig.

"For Tracey," the set's only out and out ballad, had the lyrical quality of a Miles Davis / Wayne Shorter composition. Hoenig on brushes looked for all the world like a painter in his absorption, dobbing and working color into the canvases that were his cymbals and skins. Not for nothing was one of his releases entitled The Painter. (Smalls Records, 2004) Oehler's carved out more fine sounds from his sax, with fewer notes than on his previous solos but with arresting intensity. The final number of the set was the oddly titled "Green Spleen" which featured some contrasting rhythms —something of a recurring theme in Hoenig's compositions—from drum 'n' bass to funk. With lively closing statements from all, the quartet fairly charged over the finishing line.

The encore and the final word went to Hoenig, who played the melody of an old American hymn, 'This Little Light of Mine" using mallets and elbows one again, lifting the melody from the venue's Gretch kit with the ease, and color, as if he were playing a steel pan. Lost in his rhythms, Hoenig quietly began to sing the words to himself, and the childlike innocence of this unselfconscious act only added to the grace of the piece, and somehow seemed liked a very fitting finale to a memorable night.

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