I ordered a drink from Twins Jazz’s master of ceremonies, Joseph Beasley, whose ever-pleasant attitude and energy single-handedly warmed the club’s otherwise somewhat cool atmosphere and took a look around the room. It was still early. On stage, surrounding the bass, drums, and propped open music cases lay a jumble of loose sheet music, lead wires and half-empty glasses. In one corner, threatening to bury drummer and band leader Ari Hoenig’s beautiful, custom made set, stood a precarious heap of bags, cases, and un-mounted toms. Balanced on the edge of the club’s scarred and notoriously tuneless piano, was a jerry-rigged monitor trailing a tangled web of cords. As I waited, a few more guests arrived and took their seats at the still predominately empty tables. A few minutes later, the band took the stage.
A testament to the internationality of jazz, the Ari Hoenig quartet consists of Philadelphia born Hoenig, French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, Guadeloupean saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart, who incidentally received an education in law and politics in France, and New Zealand bassist Matt Penman. Phenomenal instrumentalists, each possesses a unique musical personality and all four bandmembers have proven themselves on the international scene, as well as developed recording careers as leaders and sideman. Having worked together before, particularly Pilc and Hoenig (Hoenig is a standing member of Pilc’s working trio) the show promised to be outstanding.
Pilc was the first to hit the stage, Hoenig, Penman and Schwarz-Bart following a few minutes after, all four adorned in equally casual, non-descript, and utterly mismatched clothes. Shaking a shaggy mass of hair, Pilc joked with Hoenig, still discussing what tune to play while Penman and Schwarz-Bart tinkered with their instruments, seemingly oblivious to the crowd. It started to feel like I’d stumbled into a basement rehearsal space instead of one of Washington, D.C.’s primary jazz spots. No suits. No modernist all-black outfits. No hip nods to current fashion. No preplanned repartee to warm up the audience. These guys had no style at all. That is, until the music began.
Opening the set with the rhythmically challenging composition, “Invitation,” Hoenig immediately revealed a penchant for complex arrangements full of witty tempo changes and abrupt shifts in texture, as well as a serious dedication to musical dialogue. By the middle of the piece, however, the dialogue had transformed into a reenactment of old-time cutting sessions. Developing run after intricate run, Hoenig and Pilc seemed bent on pushing each other to the limit of their improvisational—not to mention physical—capacities, while Penman supported them with a solid groove and clever interjections.
A formidable drummer, Hoenig not so much plays the drums as melds with them, his body contorting and folding in on itself until he seems to have fused to the set, creating a strange sense that the drums have themselves developed arms and legs. It’s an incredible sight to behold that proves again the enormous difference between live and recorded jazz. The other remarkable aspect of Hoenig’s musicianship is that unlike most drummers, Hoenig’s individuality of sound does not stem from his cymbal or snare work, but from the complex variety of sounds he draws from his set, that and an ear which allows him to blend seamlessly with his bandmates, involving himself in the melodic, rhythmic, and textural aspects of each tune.
Whereas “Invitation” showcased Hoenig and Pilc, the night’s next tune, “Dungeon Grooves”, a blowing tune co-authored by Hoenig and Penman, provided saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart the opportunity to stretch out. By the end of the piece, his hair an unkempt halo of black curls against the drooping hood of his bright red sweatshirt, Schwarz-Bart reached an astonishing level of intensity, alternately blasting rapid fire lines and emitting piercing, lingering tones that sounded like cries from some private, inner desert. Proving it’s not all about chops—though he has them to spare—Schwarz-Bart plays from that stripped down part of the self both difficult to access and expose. And like Sonny Rollins, the player Schwarz-Bart brings to mind, he’s also willing to work, to strive towards higher ground on every song, every solo, every note.