Voices Of Jazz: So, I just want to start with how you got into jazz and what your early musical life was like.
Ari Hoenig: Well, I started playing violin, and piano after that. So I started with classical music, I guess. I switched to the drums when I was twelve years old. And I started playing jazz around that time I guess. You know, twelve and after. I didn’t really start liking jazz probably until I was around sixteen or seventeen.
VOJ: At that time, who did you start listening to? Who were some of your early musical influences?
Ari Hoenig: Well, I really liked Keith Jarrett, and Wynton Marsalis. There were also quite a few people that I listened to that were local, that I got to hear a lot.
VOJ: So at what point did you make the transition from being interested in music to wanting to do it as a career?
Ari Hoenig: I had to make a decision about that. It was probably when I was around seventeen or eighteen. It just became apparent that I needed to decide before I went to college. And I had a little help from — I remember talking to some career advisors in high school, and stuff like that.
Well, actually I shouldn’t say it was help. It wasn’t actually really helpful. But, you know, I had to make that decision myself.
VOJ: What is it about jazz that you think drew you to it?
Ari Hoenig: I think what really drew me to it is that it was more open to creativity, and to me doing my own thing, than I felt classical music was.
Classical music to me was always having people tell me what to practice, and how to practice, and how to play, and what to play, and very very specifically micromanaging those things. And I felt that nobody really did that in jazz. They didn’t teach me that way, and there weren’t as many steadfast rules, for example. So that’s why. It was just less constricting.
VOJ: Ever since you became serious about playing the drums, was there ever a moment where you got discouraged about it? And how did you deal with that?
Ari Hoenig: I don’t think I ever got too discouraged. At least early on. Things would just get better. I was just getting better and better and I would feel like there would be more creative possibilities, and different things that I wanted to get into and learn.
So I was just enjoying the learning process, really. I didn’t really feel like I was too slow, or I wasn’t learning fast enough, or anything like that. But I didn’t really put a ton of pressure on myself. I just kind of pursued the music that I liked.
VOJ: So you spent some time, if I understand correctly, at North Texas [State University].
Ari Hoenig: Yeah!
VOJ: Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Ari Hoenig: Yeah. I loved it there. The school has a lot of — there’s a lot of great — the students kind of make it what it is. I learned a lot from the other students. People are very open about sharing information, so I could ask a lot of questions to my seniors, and they were fine with that. There was a lot less hands-on time with teachers than I think a lot of schools have these days. But the students really more than made up for it.
And after the first year I just started carving my own way in the school, so I wasn’t really pursuing a specific degree. I mean, maybe on paper I was.
The problem was that there were classes that I would’ve had to take that I didn’t want to take, and maybe classes that I wanted to take that weren’t going to help me with getting the degree, so it just wasn’t really — it didn’t really make sense to follow whoever set up what you’re supposed to take for what degree. It made more sense for me to just follow the things that I liked and what I wanted to learn about. So once I kind of changed my mentality to that, then I feel like I really maximized my time there.
VOJ: Do you feel as if there are certain people in your mind that stick out during your time there that influenced you, either personally or musically, more than others?
Ari Hoenig: Oh yeah, absolutely. Well, Ed Soph was a teacher of mine there — a drum teacher—for the whole time that I was there. And besides him there was another drummer named Earl Harvin, who I learned a lot from, and he actually wasn’t in school with me, but he was around, and I got to see him a lot. And another drummer named Jim White.
And there were so many other musicians too that I learned a lot from, but I would say those three are probably — I mean, Fred Hamilton also. He was a teacher there. But those people really did influence me a lot. And also another drummer named Andrew Griffith.
VOJ: In my experience, most people that I’ve known who have gone to university of some sort end up changing a lot, both musically and personally. Do you feel that your personality, or your perception of yourself, or anything along those lines changed when you made the transition from high school to University?
Ari Hoenig: Well yeah, absolutely. It’s just growth that you go through. It could happen anywhere… it probably will happen slightly different, depending on your circumstances, but yeah, absolutely. I became more self-aware, I think.
VOJ: If I understand correctly, you didn’t finish at North Texas, but you did leave North Texas?
Ari Hoenig: Yes.
VOJ: What was the next step for you?
Ari Hoenig: My plan was to go to William Paterson [University], so I went home for the summer to Philadelphia, and without fully making up my mind until probably right before, but I did make up my mind to go to William Paterson – to transfer. And that’s in North Jersey.
VOJ: Being from Philadelphia, were there any musicians there that really had a strong impact on you?
Ari Hoenig: Yeah. People that I would see, like Byron Landham and Sid Simmons and Mickey Roker. And then there were people that I would play a lot with, Orrin Evans and Kevin Arthur… All of those people definitely had big impacts. Lovett Hines is another one.
VOJ: I believe that you left William Paterson, after one semester, is it?
Ari Hoenig: Yeah, technically. I would almost say that I was half going to school for even that semester.
VOJ: Yeah, fair enough. And then, did you directly make the move to New York [City]? Did you go back to Philly for a bit, or did you just directly go?
Ari Hoenig: I think what I did was I continued living in the same place for the year, and I finished out the year living there. It was an off-campus house in the city of Paterson that I lived with other students [in], who were all continuing school, but I wasn’t. So, I think that’s what I did.
VOJ: After you had spent a lot of time being involved in the scene in New York, and also having spent a lot of time on the scene in Philly, how would you say the two cities are different from each other?
Ari Hoenig: You mean as far as music?
VOJ: Yeah, in terms of peoples’ mindsets about playing, peoples’ approaches, and attitudes.
Ari Hoenig: New York is just so much bigger. It’s really difficult to compare. It’s hard to compare that. There’s more different kinds of scenes, I guess you could say, and then there are just so many people in each one, so it’s really just so massive compared to Philly.
In Philly, it’s really not that hard – like if there’s another professional musician, you’d probably know them. Especially if they’re doing jazz or any kind of improvised music, you’d likely know them. New York, you probably won’t.
So, I see New York as somewhere that had a lot more opportunities, but I think that the main reason that I wanted to move to New York – also the reason that I went to Paterson, was essentially to move to New York, eventually – I wanted it to be kind of a skipping stone to New York.
And I think the main reason was because I didn’t want to be a big fish in a small pond. I felt like there was a lot more to be learned from big ponds. That kind of thinking has always been good for me, like to have a lot of people, so I could really choose who to learn from. Philly just didn’t have many choices.
VOJ: Now that you’ve been at this for a while now—more than 20 years at this point, doing it professionally—have you ever felt that you’ve gotten burned out at any point? If you haven’t, what do you think keeps you from doing that?
Ari Hoenig: I wouldn’t ever say, ‘I’m not enjoying playing music anymore’, but there are definitely times when I’m more inspired than others, and inspired to learn. The thing that keeps me inspired is just surrounding myself with other people that are inspired, and there are other people that inspire me, and playing with them, and in some cases, listening to them. Those are the things that have kept me always with a positive view of music.
I mean, there’s definitely been changes. I’m not always happy with my own playing, and my own progress, let’s say, but not really so burned out in the way that I’m not excited to play a gig, or I don’t see possibilities in what I can create. Those things have always been there.
VOJ: Do you think at times, you’re your own worst critic?
Ari Hoenig: I don’t think I’m someone that’s overly critical of myself. I don’t really see myself like that. Some people are. Not to say that I’m the reverse of that, either, but I try to see things as close to what I would call ‘reality’ as possible—not always just from my point of view. I don’t necessarily think that I’m my own worst critic. There’s definitely plenty of occasions where I’m sure I believe much more in what I do than somebody else does.
VOJ: I want to talk a little bit about some things that are more specifically related to music and your playing.
How do you balance your role as a drummer, and for the most part playing in a rhythm section, and adding a supporting element or foundation to a band, with adding your personality to a group’s sound, and being involved and interactive with what’s going on around you?
Ari Hoenig: The thing about that is that for me is it’s something that I don’t really have to think about very much. Adding my own personality is something that I’ve never really had a problem with. I haven’t been overly shy, you know, so I haven’t had to push myself to add my stamp or print on something.
But at the same time, I’m limited by the music that I have in my head – music that I’ve listened to, and music that I’ve processed, which means basically listened to a lot. And what that music has done for me is it’s given me guidelines to what is considered musical. And I would just naturally keep to those guidelines because I want to be a musical player, and I also want other people to like playing with me, and I want them to feel comfortable.
I guess for me it’s more about stretching the boundaries than breaking them altogether. Stretching might be, for example, throwing in some bombs here and there, but still keeping a fairly traditional thing, that the other musicians I’m playing with are more used to hearing.
VOJ: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
How, over time, have you been able to develop a sensibility of when to jump in with an idea that the band might be playing, and when to lay back? Is that something that you’ve put conscious thought into, or do you think it just comes naturally from listening, and that kind of thing?
Ari Hoenig: It comes naturally from listening, but also it’s certainly conscious thought because it can go so many different directions. If I’m playing drums with a band, and all of a sudden I decide that I want to play really softly, and I’m not playing really softly at the time, then that’s going to really affect the way that the music is heard. It’s going to affect the way that the other musicians are playing, and it’s going to affect the direction of the music.
It’s not random, but I have a lot of ideas, and then they kind of go through a processor, which is whatever is in my brain. And so what that does is it tells me, is this going to be musically related? And so if I can find a musical relation to an idea that I have, then I’ll likely go with it.
It doesn’t mean that everybody that listens to it is going to find a musical relation. Now when I say a musical relation, what I mean by that is basically I’ll take ideas from the melody of the song that I’m playing, or I’ll take ideas from something that I’ve played in that song previously, like already within the song, or I’ll take ideas from something that somebody else has played within that version of the song. And those are the three places that I’m mainly getting my ideas from.
It doesn’t mean that you’re going to necessarily get a total replication of the way that sounds. That’s where I’m getting the idea, and then it goes through the brain’s processor, and I turn it into something else. Or, I don’t turn it into something else. Either way.
But the idea is that there’s a way that everything I play has a reason, and that reason is because there is thought involved in that. It’s very quick, though. It’s very fast. You have to process it really quickly because you’re playing live, but it’s the same way that – if you see somebody that you feel is really well spoken, and you’re having a conversation with them.
Say you ask them a question, and they respond in a way that is thought out, but really is smart and makes a lot of sense. And they’re able to speak like that because they’re thinking essentially while they’re speaking, and also while they’re listening. They’re thinking about their response, and they’re thinking how to make it clear, and on point.
And so it’s the same kind of process when you’re playing music. There’s definitely those kind of thoughts that are dictating what I play. You could call it a filter, or the way I refer to it is it goes through this brain processor, and then comes out possibility in some different way. It possibly comes out the same way. It possibly comes out a way that nobody else could tell where the original idea came from.
Voices Of Jazz: Do you think that those kind of intellectualizations about your decision making process occur in real time? Or do you think it’s more of an instinctual reaction?
Ari Hoenig: I think it has both of those elements. It does certainly come in real time – it has to, if you’re going to be a true improviser. Improvising is so much about listening and understanding what has already been played in the song. I don’t think that you can be a good improviser and not have any relation to what you’ve already played.
Let’s say you’re playing alone, and you’re not playing with anybody. Everything you’ve already played is part of that song. So, what you’re going to play should have a relation to what you’ve already played. If we have a conversation, we’re not going to all of sudden, out of the blue start talking about politics or what vegetables I like to eat. That’s not our conversation. So, it has to be in real time.
I consider myself an improviser, but I think more specifically a composer. I want to be able to compose in real time, not just improvise. Improvise is almost too light of a word for me, because I want it to be thought out as much as a composer would think out something that they would play. You obviously have to think really fast to be able to do that in real time.
Also, I believe that – take Bach for example. I think that he was an improviser, really, and that he was just able to improvise all of the stuff that he played. Because I can’t see any way that he wasn’t.
VOJ: Yeah, I could see that.
Ari Hoenig: I can’t see how he could’ve written all that music and not been able to just improvise it. Now, I’m not saying perfectly, but that was in his head, and those ideas came as quickly as when he improvises. So, it’s really being able to compose in real time.
VOJ: How aware are you intellectually of the specific rhythmic choices that you’re making at any given moment? Is it kind of in the back part of your brain, or are you aware of how, for example, what you’re playing might look like on paper?
Ari Hoenig: I’m able to translate it to that, if I need to, quickly. For example, I might be playing a song for the first time, let’s say, and somebody’s like, “Okay, it’s a rhythm changes.” I know the form but I don’t know the melody at all.
So, I listen to it once the first time that I play, and there’s going to be things that I soak up, and part of that is going to be intuition, but since I hadn’t heard it before, I’m not going to be able to remember the whole melody through just intuition. At least not after hearing one ‘A’ section.
But with a combination of intuition, and then, in certain places, doing what you just described, which is kind of remembering the rhythmic elements of the song – through using both of those things, then I can remember [the song] really quickly. It makes it fast for me to learn new songs, and to just process music that I hear in general.
VOJ: Is there any kind of visualization that goes along with that?
Ari Hoenig: Yeah, definitely [on] the technical side of that, there is visualization that goes along with it. So, for example, if I’m improvising a solo and I’m playing over a form that’s ‘A-A-B-A’ and I start an idea, and I play a 4-bar melodic idea. Well, one of the very first things – since I’m improvising, unless I’ve played [the song] before, probably my intuition is going to be fallible. I may very well forget what I’ve played when we get to the second ‘A’, or when we get to the last ‘A’, because I’ve already played a bridge and I’ve forgotten how the ‘A’ section started.
One of the first things I’ll think about is, “Okay, well what part of the beat did I start on?” That is at least going be the very first thing that I would think about, just to put me in the ballpark. And then from that, as far as what part of the beat – so maybe I’m starting on 1, maybe on 2, maybe on the ‘and’ of 1, whatever it is – that’s one of the things that I’ll remember, and that is a visualization type of thing.
VOJ: That’s a really interesting answer. Given that you currently have some amount of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic material “under your fingers”, as a horn player might say, how do you process new material that you’re learning to get it to the point where it’s internalized, so you don’t have to think about it in a live situation?
Ari Hoenig: I just learn the song. I try not to use written music – if I’m playing in a band and we’ve played two concerts already, I would like to have the piece memorized – not needing sheet music. There’s a certain amount that I think can happen when you’re not reading – some certain things that could happen that wouldn’t happen if you are.
I’ll consciously try to do that – obviously the more intricate the music becomes, the more that you might need to have the music there. But even if the music is in front of me, I’m not looking at it all the time. I’m usually looking at it bits and pieces of the time – little pieces that I need, but not usually the whole thing.
VOJ: Just in terms of where a lot of your new ideas, and directions come from – is that mostly from listening?
Ari Hoenig: It’s both from listening and then also just kind of exploring my on my own. There’s been a substantial amount of language that I’ve managed to teach myself through brainstorming, essentially, on “how would this idea sound?” Not getting ideas from what I’ve already heard but from what I can imagine.
If you’re doing that, the danger is that you’re learning to play things that you don’t hear. So you actually have to learn to hear them and to internalize them, even though you’re not hearing them played by somebody else.
And really it’s just starting to come up with your own language, and I’ve done that – In fact, that’s probably what most of my development has been, in the last twenty years – is with my own ideas. Not all of it, but a good portion, definitely.
I don’t think that one is better than the other, but for me, a combination feels right. Because I want to be creative and I want to be recognizable as ‘me’, but I also want to pay tribute to people that I’ve listened to and that I’ve loved their music.
VOJ: Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned being able to hear what you’re playing. What does that mean to you exactly, and how have you worked on that?
Ari Hoenig: Really specifically, for example, if I’m learning a rhythm – let’s say it’s something fairly complex like a grouping of thirteen in triplets, for example. I can’t just turn to listening to ‘Miles Davis at the Plugged Nickel’ and hope to hear that rhythm. I’m not going to be able to find somebody playing it, because likely it’s rarely or almost never played. So, I need to teach myself how it would sound.
The way I would probably recommend doing it would be putting on a record and playing that rhythm along to a song. If you play it along to a song, you’re going to start to hear it within the context of the song, and within the context of that form – and that’s what you want. Then you hear it.
Once you can hear it within the context of a song, then you can actually play it in a musical way. You can hear it, meaning that you don’t get lost in the form when you play something like that – you hear it with the song.
VOJ: In terms of a live playing situation, do you feel that you’re hearing everything that you’re playing?
Ari Hoenig: Yeah.
VOJ: Do you think it’s possible to hear what you’re going to play ahead of time?
Ari Hoenig: No. I mean yes – but I don’t do that. Maybe just like a fraction of a second. I’m not thinking about what’s going to happen five seconds later, or ten seconds later.
Ari Hoenig: It doesn’t mean that it can’t be predicted! It can certainly be predicted, but I’m not thinking that way. When you know somebody’s playing well, you can start to predict those kind of things, because you know how their thought process works, and you know the language that they know.
That’s actually what I love to do, too, playing with people – is really getting to know their playing and being able to predict, or at least try to predict, where they’re going with something.
VOJ: In recent memory have you had a situation like that, where you had a strong connection with the musicians and everything felt maybe even unusually easy, and having a flow?
Ari Hoenig: Yeah, yesterday! I had a really nice session with my trio with Nitai Hershkovits and Or Baraket, and we wrote one tune together and we rehearsed one of my songs that I wrote on piano, just like a week ago. Everything really clicked. I felt like we could communicate through music – me hearing what they’re hearing in the song, and them hearing what I’m hearing in the song at the same time.
VOJ: So those are musicians you feel as though you’ve developed a strong connection with.
Ari Hoenig: Yeah, they’re definitely among musicians like that.
VOJ: What factors do you think contribute to having the ability to develop that kind of connection with another musician? Do you think it’s possible to have that connection with any musician? What do you think determines that?
Ari Hoenig: To know their language – To know how they speak, to know how they play, and to understand it – in some cases in a technical way and in an intuitive way. But, depending on the player, that’s less necessary.
I use that approach when I’m getting to know somebody’s playing more, but once you already know their playing, you don’t really have to analyze it so much. I think that the main factor that really bonds me with other musicians – what enables me to hear what they’re doing and them to hear what I’m doing, because they’re both important.
I play with people sometimes that I hear what they’re doing, but they don’t hear what I’m doing, and I still enjoy it and I still actually have a really good time-or I could, depending – but [it’s] likely that I’ll still really like it.
However, you don’t really have a two-way communication type of thing. That’s okay too – it doesn’t always have to be this ideal improvisational experience every time. But I think that the thing that musicians are really going to have in common – it’s really about rhythm, and understanding how rhythm works in a context of language.
VOJ: In terms of your recent projects, what’s been on your mind, and what’s been getting you excited lately?
Ari Hoenig:All of my bands, basically. I’m doing a Brazilian project right now with Chico Pinheiro and Eduardo Belo, and that’s really good for me because I’ve been able to really get deeper into Brazilian jazz and traditional Brazilian music, and understand and really feel it in ways that I wasn’t before. And also learning to play it as far as the coordination, and the technical sides of it too.
I have a nonet, which is a different project, but it’s all my music and it’s arranged for a nine-piece band, including french horn and bass clarinet. So that’s been a nice outlet as well for creativity and something different. Also I have another trio with Orlando LeFleming and Gilad Hekselman, which is another guitar trio. And then also the one that I told you about. So basically [in] all my bands I have things that I’m doing that I feel like are special and could also be developed farther.
More on Ari Hoenig can be found on his website.