A native of Switzerland, drummer Arthur Hnatek arrived in New York a decade ago to study at the New School. Now based in Berlin, Hnatek is seemingly always on the move, touring with the likes of pianist Tigran Hamasyan and trumpeter Erik Truffaz. A composer of diverse interests and expansive vision, Hnatek is equally comfortable writing for large ensembles as he is devising work for his solo project, SWIMS.
This Saturday, February 23, Hnatek returns to New York to perform at The Jazz Gallery with the collaborative quartet, Melismetiq. Featuring New School peers Rick Rosato on bass and Ari Bragi Karason on trumpet (along with pianist Shai Maestro), the group explores stripped-down forms as a jumping-off point for melodic expression. We caught up with Hnatek at home in Berlin via Skype, where he spoke about Melismetiq’s development and expanding the expressive vocabulary of the drum set.
The Jazz Gallery: I understand you just arrived home?
AH: Yes, I just got back today from Switzerland, where I’m from originally. I played in this city called Basel, where I played my solo drums and electronics project, SWIMS.
TJG: Does that stand for something?
AH: It’s just one of those words where if you spell it in capital letters and turn it on itself, it remains the same. Most of my titles with that project are either palindromes or other forms of wordplay—I just like the games (laughs)—simple words with some kind of visual meaning to them.
TJG: It seems like a lot of drummers have recently been adding electronic sounds to their repertoire. I’m sure you know Marcus Gilmore and Ian Chang.
AH: Yes, of course. Ian was actually the one who hooked me up with Sunhouse Sensory Percussion.
TJG: I personally think it’s amazing how natural the integration of the electronic sounds has become. It’s almost like DJing in that you can instantly trigger a sound or loop in time the same way you might hit a snare for example. Do you see these additions as a natural progression of the instrument?
AH: I think drummers in general have always been interested in audio technology—if you look back to jazz drummers of the past, some of them would record and mix their own albums and were very savvy with technology in general. I know so many drummers who are sound engineers, and who do really great production work. So yes, I think it comes naturally for a drummer to be interested in using these types of auxiliary equipment, maybe in the same way a guitar player is interested in all of their gear and pedals.
TJG: So you’ve been touring SWIMS a bit—have you been touring with Melismetiq recently?
AH: No, we’ve never really toured the band. We kind of play one-off gigs here and there. The last one was actually also in Switzerland. Usually the gigs either come from my contacts or from Ari, the Icelandic trumpet player. In the past, festivals have asked us to bring a project, and we try to feature Melismetiq. We played this last summer in Geneva for a festival, but it was only one show. Both Shai and Rick had to fly to all the way from New York just for that one concert.
TJG: How did this group form to begin with? You look at the personnel, and you guys are dotted all over the world.
AH: It’s a very New York City-based band, because Rick, Ari, and I were all studying at the New School when we formed. Ari and I were roommates, and for a few years we we were best pals who did just about everything together. Rick was one of the best bass players at the school and already very present on the scene, and Shai we had met through the New York jazz scene.
When we started, we were actually more of an electric band. We played Nublu and once at Rockwood Music Hall—venues that were suited for funky, electronic, improvised music. At that time we didn’t have tunes at all—our music was very much improvised, kind of like what you might hear at 55 Bar. Shai was playing the Rhodes instead of piano and we were also using electric bass at the time. That must have been about 5 or 6 years ago. The band has existed for a long time, but we would only play a few shows here and there even though we all lived in the same city at the same time. We did a few things at the school, we shot a video in Brooklyn, and played in a recording studio and jammed around.
But we became a little more serious when Ari was invited to play the Reykjavik Festival, which we ended up playing twice. That was more of a legit, proper gig for us where there was a big stage and you could fit a Steinway grand piano. After that, Shai started thinking, “Why don’t I play a piano with this band?” During that summer I also organized some gigs in Switzerland—I would handle Switzerland gigs and Ari would take care of Icelandic part of the journey. So within a few weeks we did a few gigs and recorded that album in Switzerland.
The way the album turned out was very different than the way we were playing the music at the time. We ended up in this really beautiful recording studio that usually is used by ECM records—so it’s a very European jazz environment where the room is very big. The music that came out of that record is in a way more romantic than how we play live. It’s very lush and simple and lyrical, and that just came out of the context. The band never really had very complicated tunes so the music was a reflection of the way we felt and how we wanted to play that day.
TJG: When I was listening to the album, I almost thought of the tunes as folkie—almost ancient melodies but modernized to some degree.
AH: Yeah. The new sound almost came as a matter of practicality. I play drums a certain way and I often collaborate with Shai and Tigran Hamasyan who are known for their intricacies of rhythm and audacious forms. I really love playing that kind of stuff, but with this band we thought it would be so freeing to have extremely simple melodies and forms and just go for it. So yes, some of the tunes are very folkie in nature, and are sometimes even drawn from the pop repertoire—we do that song from Björk—a very simple song which Ari and I liked and thought would be easy. We also didn’t want to create a situation where we would have to rehearse for days—we wanted something where we could play it for the first time on stage, and in order to do this it’s easer to choose simpler forms. Right away you feel more free to expand upon what’s there. So all of this really just came from songs, using the trumpet as a voice, and improvising on it.
TJG: Well the record certainly doesn’t sound unrehearsed—rather it’s very listenable. How do you develop that cohesiveness when the approach is to go in and do something new every time?
AH: I think what happened with the recording specifically came after one week of our being together. First and foremost this band is a group of old friends. Specifically Ari, who I don’t see that often—he was the guy I was spending time with every single day when I was living in NY. And most of the time when I see him now it’s just to do concerts, so when we meet, usually in Iceland or in Switzerland, there’s just that feeling of so much happiness to see an old friend. I actually see Shai pretty frequently because I sub in his band regularly, and we also sometimes cross paths on tour. But there’s this feeling when the four of us are together—right away we’re joking around and being a bit silly. When we walked into the studio recording we felt very rehearsed, but in a more social way.
TJG: Who does the writing for this band? Would you call this a co-led group?
AH: I always wanted to just have a band—one where everyone is the leader and everyone is the boss. But you realize very quickly just how hard that is. In a musical way, it’s very much happening—we always have one or two of Shai’s songs, we play pop tunes and covers, and then maybe two of my songs and two of Ari’s songs. But it also just so happens that someone needs to book the tickets, organize the tour, and take care of all of that pragmatic stuff. So it was somehow decided that I would be the one doing this—I never really asked for it but it so happens that I was down for it. So yeah, the concept is a co-led group—that’s why we have a band name, but usually it’s Ari or I who are doing the organizing.
Except this gig which is coming up at The Jazz Gallery—for the very first time since I think the beginning of the group, Shai just sent us an email and asked if we wanted to do this gig. I thought it was a very nice gesture. There are a thousand different things he might want to compose or present at the Gallery, but at our last gig in July we were talking about, “What’s our next step? What’s the next thing?” And since this band started in New York, playing there almost feels like playing at home. I try to get to New York once a year if I can, and spend a week or two to just see my friends and see shows. Originally this trip was just supposed to be vacation, but then Shai suggested we do a gig at The Jazz Gallery, and we were like “Yes, of course!” And that’s just how this band works. We’re usually sitting around until someone gets asked to do something and then thinks about this band as a suitable fit. it’s very rare that we go out and actively try to book this band. It would be great if one day we look back and we’ve played together for 45 years, just playing one show every year without trying to be this touring band. And we can’t anyway. Everyone is so busy, so I almost prefer it this way. The momentary Melismetiq reunions can be a powerful thing.
TJG: Can you talk a little bit about some of the stylistic influences that go into the Melismetiq record and sound? When listening to the record it doesn’t necessarily sound like three or four separate composers from four different parts of the world. There is a shared sound to some degree.
AH: Yes, I think that’s something we connect on. It seems we all come from slightly different backgrounds but we all share a love of Keith Jarrett and the types of improvisers who would go on stage and say, “Tonight I’m going to do a show where it’s 100% improvised.” In our shows, nothing is defined as far as who starts, who finishes, whether two songs are blended together or not. All of these things happens naturally because again, the songs lend themselves to that.
But of course we all have our own sounds too. Shai has a strong style of piano playing which is influenced by his Israeli roots I suppose, but he’s also a very strong jazz player with a strong understanding of the American jazz tradition. With Rick it’s always so funny because he can play anything—he knows all the standards, he can sight-read all of the most complicated bass-lines, but we always ask him to play the most simple thing. On one song on the album we basically asked him to play the whole song as a bass solo. We always tell him, there aren’t really any chords, so he’s stripped away of all of the difficult things that are normally asked of him, which I think is a challenge itself. This puts him in a different headspace, which we like. And then both Ari and I have this background of more European players—Arve Henriksen, this trumpet player from Norway, and other artists with this ECM sound. Keith Jarrett was also actually a part of this movement with his European quartet.
For me there’s also my interest in electronic music and repetitive structures—simple rhythms that you kind of just play over and over to create a groove.
TJG: Yeah, you can definitely hear some extended vamps on the record. Do you feel you have the same amount of control over the music in Melismetiq as you do in your SWIMS project?
AH: No, not at all. That’s the crazy thing. When I play with the SWIMS project it’s pretty wild—the concept of being by yourself on stage. That’s a challenge I’m still facing [laughs]. When you’re by yourself, you’re the only one suggesting ideas and you have to be the main interest of the music at all times. This is a pretty big challenge specifically, I think, when you’re trained as a drummer who’s primary role is to accompany a soloist.
Whereas with Melismetiq, every time we meet I’m so happy to be able to give up this responsibility. I can just respond to whoever is playing. Because the music is so simple, it’s so easy to be able to respond instantly. Shai might propose something completely unorthodox—maybe play in a completely different tempo on a song we’ve played a bunch of times, but right away I’m like, “Okay, that’s the new setting for this song.” And it’s very cool that we’re able to make this change so quickly. So yes, with this band I feel much less in charge, and it’s a great feeling actually.
TJG: My first introduction to untraditional jazz drumming was Ari Hoenig who I first saw a number of years ago. Before that, I hadn’t realized you could play drums and not necessarily be the timekeeper for the group. I don’t necessarily hear Ari’s approach in your playing, but there are certainly a lot of textural, non time-keeping elements.
AH: Yes, and this is something else that I love about this group. All of the members of the band are such strong rhythmical players—if you give Shai or Rick some ostinato to play, it doesn’t make sense for me to keep time as well. It’s so freeing to play with such strong players as a drummer. All of a sudden, I don’t have to show where beats are anymore. I think Ari Hoenig’s music is a good example of this—he could have never created his style of playing if he hadn’t had around him those very strong players who could actually keep up. And I think to some degree he created this trend—it’s become a given with a lot of extremely modern drummers that they’re not necessarily supposed to be the ones showing where everything is and keeping time. The drums have very much been freed over, well, it’s actually probably been some thirty or forty years [laughs]. There’s so much more of a soloistic approach, even when comping for another soloist. For me, I love that I have the freedom within this group to dig a bit deeper into the textural part of the drums—using the small percussion sounds and more prepared drums.
I think this group offers a very similar feeling for Shai as well—we had actually talked about it. He’s so used to being a leader or the main interest of his trio—it’s his name, it’s his songs, he’s the main soloist. I think he plays in a completely different way when all of a sudden he’s just part of a group. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard him play as a sideman, but I think it’s just incredible how he’s able to challenge the music and the soloists in a new way. And I think this happens a lot in Melismetiq—it’s so cool to see the conversation between Shai and Ari, who I suppose is the group’s soloist for the most part, since he’s usually carrying the melody and standing there front and center. Shai reacts to Ari, and then I react, and then Rick reacts; I feel like I can go in any given direction.
TJG: I have heard Shai’s and Rick’s playing in different contexts but I haven’t heard Ari play before. Does he always sound the way he does on the record? There’s a strong softness to his playing it seems.
AH: Ari also has a varied palette of sounds to choose from. I do think he really shines on the record so I’m always trying to push him in this very lyrical direction. But he also is very familiar with the jazz and bebop tradition and can totally play in a more aggressive way. In Iceland, he’s very busy producing and composing both jazz and pop music, and he’s also involved in big band playing where he’s part of a section. So again, he’s just one of those guys who can really do it all on the trumpet and also on other instruments. In Iceland he’s one of the top guys—always busy with very interesting projects, but not only jazz—a lot of mainstream music too.
TJG: What music will you be presenting at the Gallery? Will there be new compositions?
AH: The goal is all new tunes specifically because we will be recording the concert. It will be cool to have recorded versions of all new songs.
TJG: When were these songs composed? Who composed them?
AH: There will be some covers. We might play this tune by Ari called “Geneva” which he composed a day before we played it in Geneva. I remember I was very freaked out since we hadn’t really rehearsed the tune except during soundcheck. But Ari tapped on my back, and said, “Man, with this band music just plays itself,” [laughs]. There are also a few tunes which I’ve already prepared and I’m probably going to write some more before the gig. There will also be a few rehearsals before the show which will be a first—we’ve never rehearsed with this band.
TJG: You don’t think rehearsing as a first is going to mess things up?
AH: A part of me knows that Shai is not going to allow us to rehearse too much. I know that’s his vibe. He’s going to read down the tunes and say, “I’ve got it.”
TJG: Shai sounds like a troublemaker.
AH: Yes, he is. But in a good way. He wants the trouble because he knows you play your best when you’re in survival mode. When you’re not completely prepared you almost play a bit better, because you’re really on your toes—ready for anything. I know Shai really likes this space.
I’d actually like for everyone to to learn the music by heart so we don’t have to have the charts on stage, which might take a little bit of rehearsing. When Shai asked me to play in his band he asked me to learn the music by heart, so now I ask the same of him with my music [laughs].
TJG: Is there anything else you wanted to add?
AH: I think the most important thing we already spoke about a bit, which is that this feels a bit like a homecoming at least for Ari and me. There’s so much excitement in going back to the city that we love and know well—so much nostalgia for back when we were students, being a little bit silly, and going to the Gallery to check out music. And this will be my first time playing the Gallery, so I really think it will be a lot of fun.
Melismetiq plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, February 23, 2019. The group features Arthur Hnatek on drums, Ari Bragi Karason on trumpet, Shai Maestro on piano, and Rick Rosato on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.