Ari Hest finds – and keeps – his own groove
Both of Ari Hest’s parents are musicians. But in the Hest household in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, neither parent pushed their son into music.Good thing, too, and not just because such prodding might have soured the young Ari on music. Jeff, the Hest pater, is a jazz horn player and teaches jazz at Queensborough Community College; he also wrote jingles when Ari was younger. Hest’s mother, Lisa, meanwhile, is a professional cantor, singing prayers and songs for Jewish religious services for more than a decade.Imagine what kind of hybrid might have been created had the two elder Hests forced young Ari to follow their paths.Left to his own yearnings, Hest imagined himself not a musician at all, but a baseball player – a pitcher for the home-boro Yankees, if he had his druthers. His father “never tried to impress on me that I had to play jazz,” said the 25-year-old Hest, now a resident of Brooklyn. “I’m glad he didn’t push it on me at a young age. I was much more concerned with my fastball.”Not until he was 16 did Hest discover the two somehow overlooked items that would lead him into music. One was his mother’s nylon string guitar, the other was the Beatles. The guitar, says Hest, “I never went near. But one day I did.” He began teaching himself songs by the Beatles and Pearl Jam.Hest went off to college at Cornell University, the Ivy League institution in upstate New York. His admission there, as best he can figure, was due to his older, smarter brother’s successful tenure there. Like his brother, Hest majored in communications. While he dabbled in music, playing mostly cover tunes at frat parties, the early returns were not encouraging.”I did, like, four hours of cover songs,” said Hest, who played just about whatever was on rock radio at the time. “I’d try to sneak in one of my own songs, and it would be a disaster. They’d go get a beer and come back when it was over. That was a humbling experience. I knew they were not there for me. They just wanted to hear those songs. That wasn’t for me.”
After transferring to New York University, Hest made a few self-produced tapes that found their way into the hands of an agent who booked concerts on college campuses. The agent convinced Hest that he would find a more attentive audience in the coffeehouses and small clubs and theaters on the college circuit. So the born-and-bred New Yorker found himself spending weekends in small college towns across the map.”Places you’d never think you’d go, like tiny colleges in Arkansas,” said Hest. “That was the beginning of my college playing career. I’d play for 10 people. But they were into it. They’d trade my music online.”Perhaps more important than getting name recognition in the hinterlands, Hest learned what it took to connect with an audience, be it in Scranton, Pa., or Manhattan. “It was important for me to get onstage and learn to connect with people,” he said. “I’d always liked music, but I didn’t like performing. I’d get up there and close my eyes. It was good – if I played for a lot of people I probably would have freaked out.”When Hest saw bigger crowds coming to his concerts – and his New York gigs being attended by more than friends and family – he figured it was time to focus on music as a career. Columbia Records, noting the strong sales of his two independent CDs, also figured Hest’s was a career worth cultivating. In March, Hest signed with Columbia – home to two of his favorites, fellow New York-area musicians Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel – and in August, Columbia released “Someone to Tell,” featuring a dozen original tunes.The album falls squarely in the singer-songwriter, pop-rock mainstream that includes John Mayer and Jason Mraz. Hest’s slightly gruff baritone is backed by plenty of acoustic guitar on a series of introspective tunes that includes the paranoid “They’re on to Me,” the escape fantasy “Aberdeen” and “Anne Marie,” which should be an anthem for all those young men who have not felt worthy of a certain goddess (“Playing the novice, I just suck my thumb / I’m singing the harmony to the melody you hum”).
Joining a major-label roster is a decision fraught with peril – and doubly so for a 25-year-old who just four years ago was nearly too shy to open his eyes in front of an audience. There are countless stories of more experienced acts who rue the moment they handed over their independence and music to the businessmen who run music companies. But Hest is pleased with his major-label affiliation so far, and optimistic about the future.”It wasn’t something I was sure I wanted to do,” said Hest, who performs with his band at the base of Aspen Mountain on Saturday, Dec. 18, at 6 p.m., kicking off the inaugural Storm the Stars race up the mountain. “I felt I was working my ass off to do things alone, without help except from my brother Danny, who is my manager. But knowing Columbia has had success with singer-songwriters lately, I was comfortable they’d lay off the musical side of things.”For the most part, Hest is doing things the same way he did as an independent musician – only with better connections, bigger crowds and more money behind him. “It’s worked out,” he said. “The record is what I envisioned. The band is who I want. I play my concerts the way I want. They were intrigued by how I was able to build something on my own. They just seem to be into helping me promote it. I didn’t expect miracles. I’d just like to have success on the lines of other people on the label. I don’t put too much stock in the fact that I’m a Columbia artist.”
Traveling around the country a few years ago, saxophonist Jason Frey ran across some people who convinced him that if he was going to make it anywhere in the music business, that place was Austin, Texas. Young and impressionable, Frey packed up his reeds and charts and moved from DePauw University, in his native Indiana, to the purported live-music capital of the U.S.A.Two years later, Frey is convinced he made the right move. Collect All Five, a groove-jazz quintet that Frey co-founded two years ago, is making its name in across Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana – and now beyond. Collect All Five – vibraphonist Mark Poitras, bassist Joshua Mouton, keyboardist Nick Litterski and Frey on saxophones – is in the midst of its first extended road trip, which brings them across Colorado. The band, which performed last week at the Blue Door in Snowmass Village, has gigs at Carbondale’s Ship of Fools on Saturday, Dec. 18, and at Club Chelsea in Aspen on Sunday, Dec. 19.Collect All Five formed out of a previous Austin combo, Unified Field Theory, which played what Frey called a more “math-oriented” brand of music: “More odd time changes, real written out,” he said. Collect All Five was put together two years ago to be a slightly smaller, less intricate group. But the direction has begun to change again: “We’re going back to what it was – more odd time signatures, meter changes,” said Frey.In fact, Collect All Five is constantly in flux. The members are all in their 20s, come from various parts of the United States, and are still absorbing influences. Frey – at 24, the youngest of the five – has been influenced recently by jazz bassist Dave Holland and his latest quintet, and dub reggae, an influence that shows strongly on “Dubopya,” a cut from their four-song EP.”Dub reggae, Latin music – all these things I was never exposed to in Indiana,” said Frey, who studied music as an undergrad. “But there’s plenty of it in Austin. So those rhythms are getting into my head. Our music depends on what people are listening to at the time.”As far as his adopted hometown, Frey is finding Austin to be both blessing and curse, but leaning in the direction of the former. “It’s diverse; there’s lots of everything,” he said. “And that can be good and bad. Because there’s so much, clubs don’t have to pay very much. Because there are five other bands willing to play.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com