Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Democracy now // Ari experienced

Wanted to comment on just a few items, as I prepare to head back to my ancestral homeland for the holiday.

First, you've no doubt heard the racket over Chinese Democracy? Read my take here. Hint: I was more Fricke and Klosterman than Pareles.

I have found it fascinating to observe and participate in the superheated dialogue this thing has wrought. As you'll read above, no one is really lukewarm on the record at all. I've had like five or six people stop by my desk over the past couple days to express either disbelief at the opinion I chose to publish or a kind of somber solidarity, as though I had elected to undertake a suicide mission of some sort. My favorite bit on the album that I've read so far comes from the Klosterman piece (say what you will: the guy is an outstandingly entertaining writer):

"On the aforementioned 'Sorry,' Rose suddenly sings an otherwise innocuous line ('But I don't want to do it') in some bizarre, quasi-Transylvanian accent, and I cannot begin to speculate as to why. I mean, one has to assume Axl thought about all of these individual choices a minimum of a thousand times over the past 15 years. Somewhere in Los Angles, there's gotta be 400 hours of DAT tape with nothing on it except multiple versions of the 'Sorry' vocal. So why is this the one we finally hear? What finally made him decide, 'You know, I've weighed all my options and all their potential consequences, and I'm going with the Mexican vampire accent. This is the vision I will embrace. But only on that one line! The rest of it will just be sung like a non-dead human.'"

YES! And btw, he's not exaggerating at all--about the vampire talk. That's a brilliant song, one of many the album contains.


Second, I was fortunate enough to catch the Ari Hoenig Trio (or try MySpace) live at Smalls the other night. Among other lessons I learned was that it is not in any way okay to assume an apathetic or been-there-done-that attitude toward what I often perceive to be "straight-ahead jazz."

I knew a little of Hoenig--a local jazz drummer who plays various downtown clubs so often he's dangerously easy to take for granted--before checking out this show. I had seen him play with Sam Yahel opening for Steely Dan a few months back. That gig piqued my interest and led to this review of his latest CD, Bert's Playground.

But that was written before I had caught Hoenig in his native setting. He plays Smalls pretty much every Monday night with one band or another and to hear the club's owner, Mitch Borden, tell it, Hoenig pretty much has the run of the place. Waiting with Laal in the entryway to the club on Monday night, I listened with Borden to a wicked drum solo that concluded the previous set. "Wait till you hear Ari Hoenig," Borden said, with two raised eyebrows. "Sometimes when he's playing a solo, the sticks are just a blur."

The club was as cozy as I remembered it. We scored second row seats and waited as the good-natured chatter swelled and subsided. Couldn't believe how packed the place was on rainy Monday night during the week of Thanksgiving, but again, that was just my underestimation talking.

How to describe Hoenig on the bandstand? I guess I would start with the word devilish. He announced the band--a lean trio with Gilad Hekselman on guitar and Orlando Le Fleming on bass--conferred with them for a sec, and then they hit it. Hoenig started off sparse. His face slowly curled into this odd sneer as he hit a stride. It's his trademark grimace, it turns out, and it signifies the demeanor of his drumming. His playing tends to work its way from pure poetic lightness to demonic density and bashing catharsis. And there's a definite wicked-gleam-in-the-eye glee about it. Hoenig loves playing for an audience, clearly, but more so, he seemed to be playing for his triomates. He kept staring them down with this crazed, superfocused smile, as if to say, "Beat that!"

And they smiled back, clearly high on his turbulent grace and kitchen-sink inventiveness (e.g., the way he meticulously renders melodies on the drums via ultraprecise muting; it verges on a vaudevillian cheese but ultimately comes off as dazzling, fearless high-wire entertainment). No tunes were announced while I was there, but I simply could not believe how tightly these three played together. No coasting at all. Very long forms, not like detectable choruses, but with everyone hugging the contours of the tunes at all times and hitting these unison accents out of nowhere. There was some minimal sight-reading and counting going on, but these players clearly knew this music.

Hekselman makes a great sparring partner for Hoenig. He was another preconception exploder. I'm not really a fan of jazz guitar per se, but there was no denying what he was doing. Burning, deeply bluesy, passionate, sick. He was just ablaze.

And Hoenig is just someone you have to see. The poetry and kineticism and, best of all, the strangeness. A marvelously eccentric player, and most refreshingly, there's nothing self-consciously avant-garde about what he's doing. But it always feels entirely fresh. He's the type of player that can sound utterly revolutionary while simply playing time. Again, no coasting. He could be criticized for being overly bombastic. He does not accompany in this band; he leads. It's often considered fashionable of late for a drummer who leads a jazz band not to command too much attention, but no, this is Hoenig's show.

And he will, I promise, screw with your mind. The suppleness verging on flashing, almost reckless outbursts. Just the strange tension of what he does. He doesn't make it look easy. He makes it look like white-water rafting or something. Always on guard, always looking for a way under, over, inside, outside the beat. His role is that of an agitator. It was--or, crucially, it at least appeared to be--a by-the-seat-of-the-pants performance, remarkable for a working jazz band. This was loud, commanding, turbulent music, but again, not in a free-jazz way. There was no pretension of mumbo-jumbo ecstasy or anything like that. It was emotional concentration, dancing poise. It was, I guess, all you'd want to hear from jazz.

Next time you're bored on a Monday, go hear Ari Hoenig at Smalls. This is the kind of thing that I would feel completely comfortable dragging the proverbial Friend Who Doesn't Like Jazz to. Wild, visceral poetry is what it was.


Appropriately, Hoenig's Bert's Playground figures into my 2008 Jazz Top Ten, posted via the Jazz Journalists Association.

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