Ari Hoenig, who grew up in Mt. Airy and attended Germantown Friends School and then Central High School, has become one of the world’s foremost jazz drummers.

by Len Lear

Ari Hoenig, 45, who grew up in Mt. Airy and attended Germantown Friends School and then Central High School, should have accumulated more frequent flyer miles by now than the Secretary of State.

Hoenig, known for his unusual and intense approach to drumming, emphasizing complex rhythms, will be performing with two other musicians at Chris’ Jazz Café, 1421 Sansom St. on Friday and Saturday, June 14 and 15. But a trip back to Philly from his now-home in New York is like a trip next door for the peripatetic Mt. Airy native.

Last fall, Hoenig’s trio, which includes Nitai Hershkovits on piano and Or Bareket on bass, made a tour in Europe.

This was followed in November by a tour with Hoenig’s French quartet (a different project). These two tours took him to Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Belgium, France, Austria and Germany.

In December, he took the trio to the west coast of the U.S.

“So far this year,” he said last week, “I haven’t done much with this trio yet, but I was touring in Thailand in January and the U.K. with my British trio in February.

“Also, I just got back from Japan and Korea, where I was touring for two weeks as a sideman. We have a short east coast tour starting on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., at Blues Alley.

“We will also be in Baltimore and Charlottesville and will end up in Philly at Chris’, of course. Later this summer my same trio will have a tour in Slovakia and play the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel.”

There is obviously a reason why Hoenig is in such big demand by jazz aficionados in so many countries. In May 2013, he received the BMW WELT (German for “world”) Award at a competition hosted in Munich. The theme was drummers who lead bands.

Hoenig began to get serious about music at Central High, then studied music performance at the University of North Texas until 1995, when he transferred to William Paterson University in New Jersey in order to be closer to New York. After just one semester at Paterson, he moved to New York in 1997.

“I gave up the piano and violin in favor of the drums,” he told us in an earlier interview. “It was much more fun and lively. It kind of gave me more of an opportunity to be less constrictive. Both my parents were classical musicians, and the drums were an instrument they didn’t really know. With the drums I found something that my parents couldn’t tell me what to do.”

(Hoenig’s mother, Lynn Mather, is a violinist/violist, and his father, Larry Hoenig, is a retired music faculty member from Germantown Friends School, a choral conductor and tenor soloist. They live in Mt. Airy.)

“I can play rock, hip hop, ska or samba, and it’s still all considered jazz. There’s a lot of freedom in that. Existing in that freedom musically is really the point.”

At Chris’ Jazz Cafe, Hoenig’s trio will play the music from their new CD called “Conner’s Days,” which just came out May 15 on the Fresh Sound label. (The “Conner” in the title was “a kind soul who appreciated the music, drove us around in Southern California and offered us nice accommodations at his grandparents’ house.”)

When he is not circumventing the globe, Hoenig lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Tracy, and children, Lyric, 6, and Alana, 4.

In Philly, Hoenig only plays at Chris’, where he has been performing since age 16.

“My first gig there was with guitarist Jimi Bruno. I was subbing for my teacher, Carl Mottola. I really do like it there.”

Who are Hoenig’s own favorite drummers, past and present?

“There are so many, but I can start with Earl Harvin, Ralph Peterson, Jack DeJonette, Lawrence Leathers, Jeff Watts, Tony Williams, Bill Stewart, Frankie Dunlop, Keith Carlock, etc.”

How has the music business changed since the beginning of Hoenig’s career?

“A big change has been that the record industry has collapsed. Making records used to be about 15% of my income. Now it’s about 2%…

“My wish is to keep making music and bringing happiness to people who hear it, but who knows what will happen?…

“My simple advice to younger musicians is to learn lots of songs. Be able to sing the melodies and really know the form. This will take you very far, even without practicing the drums.”

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