Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Ari Hoenig Trio w Gilad Hekselman and Matt Penman : Bringing Some High Wattage to Portland

The Ari Hoenig Trio: Gilad Hekselman, Matt Penman & Ari Hoenig 

Monday, October 10, 2022, was my first exposure to Portland’s live jazz music scene since moving here from the Atlanta area. The venue was a friendly, intimate, well-appointed supper club called 1905. The brainchild of the owner Aaron Barnes, a former high school band teacher turned restaurateur/bartender, 1905 is tucked in the Mississippi section of Portland and may well be, as Downbeat magazine once proclaimed, “one of the world’s top jazz venues.”  All I can attest to is that it is certainly an important place to listen to and support fine jazz in Portland. 1905 opened its doors in 2015 as a pizzeria/Italian restaurant/bar that eventually catered to live jazz music performances. The venue seats close to fifty attendees within the building and as the weather permits, there is an added generous covered outdoor seating section that is open to the bandstand. 

My visit to 1905 was sparked by the chance to see the top-notch, NY-based band The Ari Hoenig Trio. We attended the early first set which kicked off at a little after six pm. The trio was an impressive group, an international flavored potpourri, led by the forty-eight-year-old, Philadelphia-born, polyrhythmic drumming whirlwind Ari Hoenig, the fleet-fingered Israeli-born guitarist Gilad Hekselman and progressive New Zealand-born bassist Matt Penman. These master musicians have been at the forefront of a new generation of talented improvisers that honor the tradition of jazz while blazing new trails of interpretation within the broad scope that encompasses this genre. 

It was an electric performance from the start. The group took little time to warm up as they started with “Boplicity” from Hoenig’s 2018 album NY Standard. The composition was written by Cleo Henry and Gil Evans for Miles Davis's 1957 classic Birth of Cool. From the slow simmer of the thoughtful cool jazz original, the trio stirred the music into a boiling cauldron of energy led by the drummer’s exuberant brush playing, reminiscent of Jeff Hamilton’s brush mastery. There is a joy in Hoenig’s playing that makes you just get swept up by his infectious enthusiasm and creative trap work. Hekselman’s facile guitar lines were successively quicker and more serpentine path from the theme. Penman’s warm upright anchored the bottom beautifully. This group was ready to thrill.

Ari Hoenig 

The set followed with Hoenig’s beautiful composition “Anymore” which was on his album Connor’s Days. Hoenig has been known to sing and play piano on this but here he simply led the group with a polyrhythmic beat that was mind-blowing. Hekselman explored the harmonic possibilities of the song to great effect and Penman offered a probing bass solo. This is creative music at its best.

After some ardent applause from the attentive audience, the trio embarked on the classic Ray Noble tune “Cherokee,” an Indian love song. The song’s structure was used as the basis of the more incendiary version “Ko-Ko” by saxophone master Charlie Parker. The energized approach made the song into a virtual demonstration of virtuosity and speed. Here the trio took the song and made it a showcase of Hekselman’s guitar prowess. Gilad is a beautiful player who creates mercurial lines at impressive speed and without any degradation of clean precision. Deceivingly, his improvisational skill seems to make it look almost effortless. Hoenig and Penman provided the guitarist with unrelenting propulsion and polyrhythmic time shifts to make it all work like a precision timepiece. The song produced a predictably arousing response from the audience.

Ari finally took up the microphone to introduce the group to the audience who responded with grateful applause. He introduced the next selection of the set, a dedication to the pianist/composer Billy Childs, titled “Child’s Prey” which is on Ari’s latest release Golden Treasures. I am a big fan of Child’s work, so it is always of interest to listen to a song that is written with another artist in mind.  The composition has an undulating opening that was originally recorded with pianist Gadi Lehavi on Golden Treasures following the slithery course that Hoenig creates and is reminiscent of some of Child’s own work. On this night Hekselman’s guitar was the defining instrument that laid down the path and he did so with phenomenal aplomb. Penman took his turn with a potent solo that showed just how facile he is on the upright. The song features a sustained ostinato section where the music is repeated, creating a background drone where Hoenig’s drums produce an agitated whirlpool of percussive sound effects. His arms and legs are like swirling dervishes of momentum and rhythmic invention.  A tireless fusillade of percussive variation. The performance was just outstanding.

Gilad Hekselman

The group returned with “Guernsey St Gooseneck,” a rhythmic groove of a composition by Hoenig. The song has Penman and Hoenig maintaining the groove which becomes amazingly catchy. Looking around the place, I saw most of the audience, including me, bouncing their heads to this infectiously repeating groove. With the beat established it left Hekselman with the task of creating some counterpoint and diversity. The guitarist established loops on his guitar that maintained different ascending lines upon which he added variations and improvisational harmonies.

Matt Penman

Never one to leave a beat at a simple 4/4, Hoenig and Penman would occasionally change the rhythm up. I’m not one who can always identify the proper time being used but the group did so without losing the audience or each other. A crowd pleaser.

The closing composition of the set was brief and another Hoenig ballad, “For Tracy,” a song he wrote for his wife from his Connor’sDays album. This sensitive composition featured Hekselman’s gorgeous guitar voicings and showed that this trio was indeed capable of emotive music on demand.  

I had previously seen bassist Matt Penman’s work with Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, and Eric Harland in
James Farm. He is also a member of the influential SF Jazz Collective with Miguel Zenon and David Sanchez and is in pianist Aaron Goldberg’s trio. I first heard Gilad Hekselman’s guitar work on his 2018 album Ask For Chaos. Besides this trio with Hoenig, he has his own quartet with saxophonist Mark Turner, Joe Martin, and Marcus Gilmore. The real discovery for me was drummer Ari Hoenig. I had heard of him and knew he was an accomplished drummer/composer, who had played with pianist luminaries like Jean Michel-Pilc, Tigran Hamasayan, and Kenny Werner, but I had never really heard him play and his performance at 1905 exceeded all my expectations. He is a vibrant, personable musician who, when I spoke to him, told me some of his influences include drummers Ralph Peterson and Brian Blade among others. 

Ari Hoenig is an impressive musician, and the trio is certainly a band that you should make an effort to see if possible. The trio is on tour and will return to Smalls in NYC on Oct 17th before they move to the European leg of this tour starting in England, playing in  Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, and Paris, France before returning to Smalls on Nov 21st

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