Jazz album of the week: Roni Ben-Hur’s nod to bebop, bossa nova and his Sephardic Jewish roots


August 2, 2021. Besides being an extremely talented musician, Roni Ben-Hur is an intelligent man. The veteran guitarist, born and raised in Israel, understands not only how to create tunes; he knows how to build an album that reflects the essential touchstones of his musicality.

As a Maghrebian – Ben-Hur’s family is Tunisian – he has always found common cause with bossa nova and common origins with African bossa rhythms and Moorish influences; as a protégé of Barry Harris, his commitment to bebop has been equally enduring; and as a Jew, the music of Gershwin, Arlen, Kern and Berlin – much of which is rooted in Jewish melodies – is almost hardwired into his spiritual and musical motherboard.

His last, Stories, confirms this diversity of influences with nods to bebop, bossa nova, and its Sephardic roots. It also confirms his intelligence, because he knew that in order to merge so many elements of his musical identity on a single album, he would have to find musicians of comparable depth and breadth.

With George Cables (piano), Victor Lewis (drums), Harvie S (bass) and Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), he found the right people, and the end product is even greater than the sum of its highly skilled components.

Lots of tracks here suggest this may be Ben-Hur’s most personal album to date.

“Ha’omnam” takes the painfully beautiful words of Hebrew-speaking poet Leah Goldberg and sets them against a bossa-nova background that recalls the rippling quality of a thin linen suit, how it floats and flaps in a cool coastal breeze. Israeli singer Tamuz Nissim delivers Goldberg’s lyrics to Seeking Hope Amid Untold Darkness – Goldberg’s poem the song is based on was written in 1941, during the worst days of the Holocaust – with that rare mixture of humanity and composure that separates artists from singers.

It proves that it is not necessary to force to convey meaning. If Nissim’s style and feel reminds you of Melody Gardot, whose gorgeous Sunset in the Blue we featured here earlier this year, you pick up on the same qualities I do.

“La Serena” is another drawn from the ancestral roots of Ben-Hur and another anchored by a brilliant singer. This time it’s Magos Herrera — who also appears at the bottom of the album on “A Redoblar” – singing an old Sephardic folk song about unrequited love in the ancient Judeo-Spanish dialect of Ladino. You don’t need to understand a single word to be moved by it; Herrera’s voice in any language is inherently touching. And here, his raucous viola and Middle Eastern attributes are reminiscent of “Ankara Sundays” from singer Somi’s new album, Holy Room.

Ben-Hur is as good an accompanist as he is an improviser, and that’s saying something. His style is always communicative but never exaggerated; it’s humble and melodic and so, so clean. But at least on that tune, it’s Jensen, formerly of the Diva Jazz Orchestra and current member of female supergroup Artemis, whose playing is most memorable.

But you won’t forget that Ben-Hur is the headliner here. Listening to the next track, an interpretation of “Something for Kenny” by pianist Elmo Hope which swings outright, will assure you. Ben-Hur wastes no time making his mark here; he hits the hole hard and fast, without dancing unnecessarily in the backfield. His playing reminds me of one of those runners whose stride is so long and graceful that you don’t even realize how fast he’s really going. There is a fluidity and grace in Ben-Hur’s playing that makes everything seem easy, especially what you most certainly know isn’t.

Elmo Hope was a contemporary and friend of Thelonious Monk, so this one fits perfectly into the closer “Melodious Funk”, inspired by Cables’ Monk. Cables, like Ben-Hur’s mentor Harris, is one of a generation that has kept the flame of bebop innovators like Monk and Hope alive, and this one is proof of that. It’s full of Monk’s characteristic mischievous playfulness and roundabout circuits, which can sometimes confuse less fluent players. But Cables speaks Monk as if it were his mother tongue.

Elsewhere, there’s “After the Morning,” a tribute to the late pianist John Hicks starring Jensen on muted trumpet, and “But I Had to Say Goodbye,” Ben-Hur’s sad ballad about a love he hurts you to have to get away from. It’s a complex emotion to capture and Cables and Harvie S frame it perfectly, showing us what anguished acquiescence looks like to the harsh truth.

Juxtapose that with “Ma’of”, perhaps Ben Hur’s most personal track on an album full of it. Written for his two daughters, there is a sophisticated balance here between the simultaneous joy and dread fathers feel when they see their children go from addicting dreamers to independent actors. There are times that signal parental apprehension, but what mainly comes through is not ambivalence or even cautious optimism, but pride.

It’s a song, says Ben-Hur, about “take flight,” and that’s exactly what these musicians communicate. The anticipation, the uncertainty, the apprehension, the terror, the excitement of becoming an adult, all the while keeping within reach what Ben Hur calls the “melody of youth”.

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