Ari Hoenig is a true innovator when it comes to drums, and we’re so happy to have the chance to talk to him face-to-face despite his busy schedule. He’s currently leading Ari Hoenig Quartet, “Punk Bop,” and Ari Hoenig Trio. He’s a regular at various jazz clubs in New York such as 55, Fat Cat, Smalls, and Zinc Bar. He’s also an educator where he teaches at New York University and The New School for Social Research in New York. Besides leading his own bands, he has played in Jean Michel Pilc Trio, Kenny Werner Trio, Chris Potter Underground, Kurt Rosenwinkel Group, Joshua Redman Elastic Band, Jazz Mandolin Project and bands led by Wayne Krantz, Mike Stern, Richard Bona, Pat Martino, Dave Leibman and Bojan Z. He has also shared the stage with such artists as Herbie Hancock, Ivan Linz, Wynton Marsalis, Toots Theilmans, Dave Holland, Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny and Gerry Mulligan.
How did you start playing drums?
I played a violin at first, and I didn’t enjoy it very much. My mother tried to teach me how to play at first and gave me lessons, and I didn’t like it. Probably like with all kids where if the parents tried to teach them an instrument, it doesn’t work so well. Then I moved to the piano at age 6. It was all classical, so I learned to read music a little bit. But, I avoided reading well, because I had good ears so I could sound out everything I heard. I’ve always loved composing and coming up with things on my own. I didn’t really like the classical piano lessons either. It seemed like a task more than anything else. When somebody else wants you to do something, it takes away the independence from it , especially at that age. So I switched to the drums at age 12. My parents wanted me to continue playing an instrument, and at that time I could finally choose an instrument, so that’s why I chose the drums.
Did your piano or violin lessons affect your understanding on drums?
I think everything comes into play. I don’t think it’s so much the knowledge of the instrument itself that changed the way I play. It’s more the music, and the experience with the music that I played on the piano, or the music that I heard during that time, or that I heard other people played. I think that’s what sticks. I stopped taking piano lessons at 12 but I took it again later on when I was 18, and 23 or 24. I think it’s the knowledge that I gained during that time that appear in my compositions. And mostly from what I hear, too. I think it’s the knowledge of the music, more than technique of playing the instrument, that affected.
What about modern composers like Debussy, Bela-Bartok, Schoenberg, Ravel?
First of all I wasn’t at the age to be ready to play their pieces. I think I wasn’t challenged in the right way, in a creative way. Playing other people’s composition note by note is just not my thing. I think the first three composers would be closer to my musical taste.
My musical taste hasn’t gotten to that point even today. I have a book on Bartok. I’ve played substantial amount of their music. But, it just doesn’t hit me as strongly as the first three composers you mentioned before. I think it’s because what my parents listened to – which are the more “classical” classical music.
The thing I like about playing on drums, or any instrument, is improvising. I like to improvise. I like to create something new. I like to be in the moment. I like to be able to react to what I hear and to what I feel. When you play written music, it narrows down you ability to do that. For most people I’d describe myself as a jazz drummer. But what I really try to be is an improviser. That’s how I feel and that’s what I see myself more – an improviser. I play jazz and I understand jazz music. I understand other styles of music. When I really feel at home, I can just play what I feel at any given time. When you are playing a piece, that’s pre-written, so you cannot do that.
How did you decide to devote your whole life to music?
I’ve never made that decision. I mean there was a time I needed to make a decision. I needed to go to college but I didn’t know what major, so I made it music. By making that decision it was pretty clear that I wanted to be a musician. Dedicating you whole life to something is a restriction that I never wanted to do. I think there is a lot more time for other things too. I would say that I thought that being a musician is a fun, nobel profession. You make people happy and you have fun doing it. I just thought: what a good way to go to office and play music for people. That seemed to me a really good job. That’s why.