SHOW REVIEW: Ari Hoenig Quartet

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Smalls is a staple New York jazz club, and has a history of fostering rising talent on the jazz music circuit.  With a capacity of 60, the club induces an intimate setting for taking in new jazz works.  The artists who fill the aptly small stage are known to exude as much character as the club imbues.  Ari Hoenig and his quartet are a perfect fit for this venue, and it’s no wonder he’s been granted an ongoing residency there.  Hoenig plays with a shifting cast of band members, but usually performs in his trio or quartet setting at this venue.  This evening’s show included Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Tivon Pennicott on saxophone, and Orlando le Fleming on upright bass.  The group performed Hoenig’s compositions, and embellished with a healthy dose of improvisation as well.

Ari Hoenig is fascinating to watch perform due to his unpredictability as a performer.  Many drummers will find a beat to cling to for the majority of a song, whereas Hoenig continually changes up rate, phrasing and orchestration to create more interesting textures.  Without knowing a great deal about jazz drumming, I still found his performance exhilarating to watch unfold.  Hoenig’s playing was certainly the centerpiece of the quartet, and many of the songs make way for meaty drum solos that indulge in complex rhythms.

The group as a whole listens well to one another, and was able to trade off the spotlight seamlessly.  Clearly these artists have an ongoing rapport with one another.  Pennicott’s saxophone solos were particularly notable.  I admit I’ve had a hard time reconciling jazz saxophone solos in the past, as I’ve often found the sounds to be a bit cheesy, but Pennicott plays with a subdued, rich timbre that erased any preconceived notions I’d had.  He plays with great ease and expression, and creates a smooth counterpoint to Hoenig’s energetic style.

Drummers are placed under a magnifying glass at Smalls.  A hanging mirror reflects every move Hoenig makes, and gives audience members a close look at his technique.  Music students can delight in such onstage transparency.  I enjoyed the insight into Hoenig’s playing, and left feeling I understood better what he brings to the stage.  Hoenig began performing at age 14, and has since performed with an array of top jazz musicians including Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis.  Currently Ari leads several groups that play his original compositions.  Besides the Ari Hoenig Quartet, he also plays with a trio, various duos, and the groups Punk Bop, Oscillations Quartet, and Pilc/Moutin/Hoenig.  Hoenig is in high demand, so seeing him perform in a cozy setting like Smalls is a treat.

Green Spleen is a standard piece in Hoenig’s shows, and the band typically saves this upbeat, dynamic song for last.  The piece takes on new iterations each time it’s played, as performers and various instrumentations are subject to change.  I had been familiar with a recorded version of this song that included jazz piano.  This live version replaced keys with guitar, and Gilad Hekselman filled in with highly lyrical riffs on electric guitar.  Hekselman embodies a sound that is expressive and anchors the mood.  This song lets the audience in on a little bit of tradition, and is a nod to Hoenig’s fans.

The quartet also played Wedding Song, which is a tender departure from Hoenig’s typically complex, upbeat style.  Hoenig garnered laughter from the audience as he explained he would wait for the dishwashing machine in the club’s kitchen to stop running before he could begin this song.  I was glad he held for silence, as this composition begins with a gentle, subdued mood that slowly builds to a joyous, heartfelt climax.  The range of dynamics gives the main theme in this song greater significance.

Smalls plays a central role in the tradition of jazz music in New York City.  In between traveling for performances, Hoenig has kept up a residency at Smalls, and plays there often.  For his schedule, see  Smalls does not take advance reservations, so be sure to arrive a half hour early to stake out a seat.  Ari Hoenig is a must see for jazz lovers and those who appreciate a well-honed performance.