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.
Alternating between brushes and sticks for the next tune, a poignant, insightful rendition of “Blue in Green”, Hoenig further revealed his virtuoso command of the drums, eliciting the same diversity of sound as earlier, only this time at the subtler, softer volume dictated by the tune. Beginning with an homage to Bill Evans before moving into his own style, Pilc also displayed what has become his trademark ability to improvise with great depth and feeling, as well as at break-neck speeds. In an unusual arrangement driven by Schwarz-Bart’s muscular yet lyrically vulnerable tone and centered around a penetratingly expressive solo by Penman, the piece developed slowly from its more typical melancholic tone toward an up-tempo rhythm, building over time into a powerful crescendo of sorrow and lament.
The set’s final tune was equally impressive. Beginning with an extended drum solo, Hoenig reached new heights of inventiveness, using his fingers, palms, sticks, hands and elbows, to draw varied tones from snare and toms, cleverly building the pattern of sound until it became recognizable as the melody for “Summertime.” This display alone would have made the piece one of the most memorable renditions I’ve encountered in quite some time, but the series of solos and blended group improvisation that followed, the intensity of expression, and the sheer musicianship displayed was enough to confirm that Ari Hoenig, Jean-Michel Pilc, Matt Penman, and Jacques Schwarz-Bart are not only jazzmen of the highest order, but also as a group have developed a rare and impressive dynamic.
Oh, and style? These guys don’t need style. This is the real thing, true bohemia, the quintessence of jazz: wildly individualistic, idiosyncratic, irreverent, and totally dedicated to pure, free expression.
Ari Hoenig’s latest release, The Painter , featuring Pilc, Penman, and Schwarz-Bart is currently available on Smalls Records. For more information on the album and the quartet’s touring schedule, visit Ari Hoenig on the web.
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