There are plenty of great jazz drummers today, but only a few who have distinguished themselves from the pack and evolved truly unique styles. Ari Hoenig is undeniably one of the few.
Born in 1973 in Philadelphia, Hoenig is the son of musicians and began learning piano and violin at the age of four. At twelve years old he started playing the drums and soon thereafter discovered jazz music. Hoenig studied with Ed Soph at the University of North Texas for three years before transferring to William Patterson College in 1995, and then moved to Brooklyn. Hoenig has played with a long list of renowned musicians including Shirley Scott, Kenny Werner, Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, Gerry Mulligan, Herbie Hancock, Joe Lovano, and Pat Metheny.
I first discovered Ari Hoenig’s playing through YouTube, and it was unlike anything I had ever seen. He was playing melodies on the drums—not just melodic drumming, a la Max Roach, but actual melodies! This is one of his trademarks. By applying specific amounts of pressure to the drum heads as he plays them, he controls and manipulates the pitch of each stroke. He uses this technique to play everything from classic folk melodies to bebop, and even to improvise solos.
As innovative and unique as Ari’s melodic style is, it is only supplemental to the other aspects of his playing. For one thing, he writes and plays some of the most rhythmically charged music you will likely ever hear. His bands fly in and out of complex polyrhythms with ease, but do so in ways that sound musical rather than mathematical—a surprisingly difficult achievement.
On top of that, Hoenig’s playing is always hyper-relevant to what is happening in the moment. As opposed to playing a pattern behind soloists, his style is more organic. He is constantly and creatively adapting to complement whatever is occurring in the music at any given time, and the band sounds like one liberated unit rather than a soloist and a rhythm section. All of these things combine to give his bands a level of unity, freedom and communication which is exceptionally hard to come by and incredibly fun to listen to.
In January, Hoenig released The Pauper and the Magician, his tenth album as a leader and his first new release since 2011. He has also written and published several educational books and DVDs, and in 2013 won the prestigious BMW Welt (World) Award in Munich, an international competition for the best band led by a drummer. Hoenig currently lives in Brooklyn and is on faculty at New York University and the New School for Social Research in New York. Check him out!