Drummer Ari Hoenig released his fifth full-length album with his artistic inspiration coming from a dead goldfish. Bert’s Playground, an album consisting of several reworked bebop standards as well as many original compositions, is named for Hoenig’s “one and only goldfish, the only fish in a tank full of snails”. The title is proof enough of Hoenig’s light-hearted manner and jovial wit, also apparent in his sprightly and energetic manner of performance.
With the effervescence of Max Roach and the leadership of Art Blakey, Hoenig calls his craft of jazz Punk Bop “because it’s rooted in the bebop tradition but is also a highly communicative unit capable of changing directions at any time”. Hoenig’s collaboration with a variety of outfits, such as the jam-flavored Jazz Mandolin Project or fusion-oriented Mike Stern, opens Hoenig’s abilities past being solely a bop drummer. Bert’s also exhibits all of Hoenig’s influences from punk and hip-hop to metal. He explores every crevice of his drum kit as he generates texture and new life to standards. While an instrument playing the melody can be quiet and serene, Hoenig can adapt himself to playing behind or under the main instrument with a driving presence. His beats exude tribal prominence at times, and he plays while subtly infecting a crooning melody with spontaneous punk rock tenacity. For instance, “The Way You Look Tonight” features dreamy guitar work by Gilad Kekselman overtop Hoenig’s rocker pace, switching from sticks to mallets.
The disc begins with a laid-back “Moment’s Notice” before the Coltrane hit explodes with tenor saxophone heavyweight Chris Potter’s (Dave Holland, Steely Dan, et al) dancing around the melody. Hoenig keeps the pace frenetic but balances with soft strokes and aura of cymbals. At times a constant flurry of pencil-whipped rimshots, Hoenig’s drumlines never repeat themselves. He is all over the kit as he whips Jonathan Kriesberg (Dr. Lonnie Smith) takes the lead on the next few verses with a lighthearted Vince Guaraldi tone. The 4/4 rhythm of the introduction returns for sidetracked bass solo by Matt Penman. Hoenig’s other cover songs include many familiar sounds like Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight”, Wayne Shorter’s “Fall”, and Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”.
Hoenig’s several original compositions feel just as familiar at times. Hoenig samples spoken word and manipulates feedback for a psychedelic jazz treat “Green Spleen”. The introduction is met with a funk arrangement that involves Kreisberg’s wahhed-out guitar and funk fusion bass lines from Penman. There might as well be an organ in the mix. Potter returns to the scene with power-sax that borders on frenzied. The ends of his phrases are strained and forceably squeezed out and sometimes repeated for more effect. While Potter rocks out, Hoenig lets loose with exaggerated lashings and rocker drum rolls. Before maxing his rock ability out, Hoenig returns to serene with the aforementioned “Embraceable You”. The juxtaposition of this calm piece against the previous raucous affair only solidifies Hoenig’s vast range of playing ability.