by Mike Engle
Before Ari Hoenig's trio (Hoenig, drums; Shai Maestro, piano; Orlando le Fleming, bass) played a single note, Hoenig uttered a peculiar quotation from the Cornelia Street Café stage. Hoenig quipped that "Everyday is Halloween at the Cornelia Street Café," even though this night, March 3rd, was more than seven months away from October 31st. Nevertheless, Hoenig's trio managed to offer endless tricks and treats among jazz standards and original compositions.
While chatting with Hoenig during the intermission, I was informed that this was, in fact, the first time that these three had ever played together, specifically as a trio. That being said, the players were certainly not strangers to each other. According to Hoenig, he has played with Maestro for five years, and alongside Le Fleming for "a couple." (The bassist appeared on Hoenig's latest CD, Lines of Oppression.) Hoenig also disclosed that this trio was, basically, his regular quartet without guitarist Gilad Hekselman. (The quartet will be reunited for an upcoming Asian tour, with performances in Tokyo, Bangkok, and Singapore.)
The group's interplay became evident immediately, as they opened with an advanced version of Wayne Shorter's "Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum." The intricate head included multiple metric modulations, and eventually led to solos over the form, albeit in 7/4 time. The ensemble then continued their showcase of whimsical arrangements, including Hoenig's signature version of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," Sonny Rollins' "Pent-Up House" (which, reportedly, for the first time in the band's career, they played in 5/4 time), and Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma," when, at one point in the song's introduction, Hoenig removed the snare drum from its stand, in order to play it as a hand drum on both sides. With minimal mental preparation, let alone rehearsal, the trio earned maximum approval from the sold-out audience.
"Smile" proved to be a microcosm of the trio's penchant for spontaneity and virtuosity. This tune was appended to the end of the act out of necessity, because Hoenig realized the previous songs were not long enough for a complete set! Although Hoenig remembered having once started "Smile" in E, only to later modulate to F, the band could not remember how they accomplished that. As a result, they settled on "only" playing in F, after Hoenig played the melody on his specifically-tuned drum set. Eventually, during Maestro's solo, Hoenig heard another instant source of inspiration, as he instructed the pianist to "stay on that [vamp]."
The Ari Hoenig Trio performed brilliantly, and in a manner accessible to a wide range of listeners. It is relatively rare for drummers to headline their own groups; however, Hoenig was the unquestioned leader among the three band mates, with Maestro and Le Fleming following his cues and shifts perfectly. Although casual listeners might not have noticed, for example, Hoenig's balancing of 4/4 and 3/8 sections in "Giant Steps," they probably would have recognized the musicians' instant magic on the bandstand. At the end of the night, the crowd was able to go home with, figuratively, enough "candy" to last until Halloween.