Jazz guitar virtuoso Roni Ben-Hur shares another chapter of his genre-busting 40-year multicultural musical journey with Stories and an impressive lineup that includes the legendary George Cables on piano, esteemed trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, the steadfast rhythm section with bassist Harvie S and drummer Victor Lewis, and special guest vocalists Magos Herrera and Tamuz Nissim. Ben Hur’s story began in Dimona, a small, provincial desert town in Israel, where he was born in 1962. In Stories, Ben-Hur, who moved to New York in 1985, constructs an engaging collection of songs that resonated with him in his childhood and others that have meaningful social context today.
The album begins and ends with two compositions that reflect the scope of Ben-Hur’s musical explorations. “La Serena” is a Sephardic folk song of unrequited love, sung in the ancient Jewish Ladino dialect by Magos Herrera. “Melodious Funk,” which couldn’t be more different, is written by legend Cables, and as you likely guessed, is a classic homage to Theolonius Monk. In keeping with their fertile period of Monk, “Something for Kenny” is a composition by Elmo Hope, a 1950’s/60’s mainstay jazz pianist and largely unheralded bebop innovator. Ben-Hur and the band honor Hope’s music by weaving an intricate trade-off of improvised solos through his bouncy melody. We also get the sprightly side in his personal song “Ma’of”, about “taking flight” as Ben-Hur watched his two daughters striking out on their own. Both the guitarist and Cables capture that exuberance of youth in their brisk flowing solos. As we proceed, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the author of the liner notes, New York freelancer Terry Edmonds, especially for his insight on the Hebrew translations.
Ben-Hur is a clean, highly melodic guitarist, with hard swinging passages and supportive, delicate lines, depending on the needs of the tune. While the Monk and Hope tunes certainly reflect his swinging side, his soulful guitar, George Cable’s delicate piano, and a final anguished cry from Harvie S, create the requisite melancholy in the mournful ballad of ill-fated love that is “But I Had to Say Goodbye.” “After the Morning,” another ballad, is a tribute to John Hicks, the great 20th century jazz pianist, showcasing both Jensen and bassist Harvie S, playing gorgeously.
“Ha’omnam”, with lyrics by the revered Hebrew-language poet, Leah Goldberg, is a story of hope during the darkest days of the Holocaust. Ben-Hur accompanies the sturdy, soothing voice of acclaimed Israeli vocalist Tamuz Nissim whole Cables’ supporting piano shimmers. Translated from Hebrew, she sings: You shall walk in the field, alone, without being burnt by the fires on the roads that bristled from terror and blood. This reminds us that thousands of refugee families and children are experiencing their own horror in war-torn regions around the world. In “A Redoblar” (Let’s Roll), Victor Lewis’ defiant drum riff signals a story of oppressed people marching together for freedom and equality. Magos Herrera, called by the Latin Jazz Network “one of the greatest contemporary interpreters of song,” gives voice to the ‘70’s protests to fascist regimes in Latin America. Ben-Hur’s solo has bluesy overtones and near the end of the song, Herrera yields to Jensen’s impassioned solo. These are two gifted, potent women with convicted voices.
This is a well-conceived album in terms of tempos, moods, and subject matter. It would be difficult to find a better ensemble to perform Ben-Hur’s compositions. Although most of it comes across in straight-ahead fashion, careful listening also reveals a mastery of cultures – the Brazilian, Middle Eastern and African musical landscapes that are so much a part of his heritage. This is one to return to often.
- Jim Hynes