What's Hot With Jazz Guitar: Roni Ben-Hur

by Doc Dosco

This week we feature a really fine jazz guitarist named Roni Ben-Hur that I'd been hearing about for quite some time. He has a long list of accomplishments and is really worth checking out!

Online Bio

Year by year, Guitarist Roni Ben-Hur has been building an increasingly stellar reputation for himself since he first migrated from his native Israel to New York City, back in 1985. A passionate leader, player, composer-arranger, published author and respected educator, Roni now stands as one of the elite players in modern jazz. Keepin' it Open, his fifth release and his debut on the Motema imprint elevates his game yet another notch or two as he leads a company of fellow jazz greats - pianist Ronnie Matthews, drummer Lewis Nash, bassist Santi Debriano, percussionist Steve Kroon and new trumpet sensation Jeremy Pelt through a very personal and multicultural jazz adventure.

A virtuoso guitarist with impeccable swing, Ben-Hur acquits himself with equal parts fire and finesse on Keepin' it Open, a versatile collection that runs the stylistic gamut from the engaging standard "Can't We Be Friends" to the exotic, emotionally-charged treatment of the Sephardic folk melody "Eshkolit." There is a gorgeous rendition of Dori Cayimi's "Like a Lover," a dramatic arrangement of the hauntingly beautiful Spanish classical number "Andaluza," and Roni's connection to his mentor Barry Harris is honored on the swinging tribute track "My Man, Harris," which the guitarist and his stellar crew take at a breakneck pace. Other highlights include Roni's hip interpretation of Thelonious Monk's "Think Of One," his lush take on the Tommy Dorsey-Frank Sinatra chestnut "Indian Summer" and a rousing rendition of the challenging but eminently hip "One Second Please" by the great pianist-composer Elmo Hope. The band hits a relaxed stride on the guitarist's affecting mid tempo swinger "Back When" and they close out the collection in energetic fashion with the lively samba "Recado Bossa Nova."

Roni Ben-Hur Throughout the CD, Ben-Hur's warm, clean tone, crisp articulation and forceful attack on his hollow body Gibson jazz box are firmly rooted in the tradition of jazz guitar masters Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and Grant Green, though he also credits tenor sax titan Sonny Rollins as being a towering influence on his authoritative approach to guitar.

For the album's title, Ben-Hur reached back to a memory from his tiny Israeli home-town, Dimona. "When I was trying to think of a name for this record, it came to my mind how the front door of our house was always open, and how my mother was so generous about inviting people in to stay with us. I realized it was her generosity that taught me to trust life so much that I could leave that town and wind up here in New York playing jazz with so many amazing people. Whenever we'd ask her if we should close the door, she would always say, 'Keep it open.' This kind of attitude is very much a part of my music. What I aim for is to always keep an open mind and spirit on the bandstand and at all times express my emotions through my music. "

As a teenager, Roni Ben-Hur fell in love with jazz while still in his native land of Israel. Born to a family who emigrated from Tunisia, he grew up with the exotic, seductive rhythms of North Africa and the soulfulness of Sephardic Jewish melodies. Interestingly, this unusual background made for a very natural transition to jazz. Roni recalls, "though no one in my family was a professional musician, music was a central part of our life. Every celebration and holiday included singing and dancing, mostly with the accompaniment of hand drums. Music elevated us in times of happiness as well as hardship. This experience taught me the strength and power of music."

Roni Ben-Hur As a determined and impressionable young musician iterally 'fresh off the boat' in 1985, Roni absorbed a lifetime of real-deal experience hanging out at Barry Harris' Jazz Cultural Theater, the epicenter of hip in Manhattan during the 1980s. There he met a veritable Who's Who in Jazz, each of whom imparted enriching tales about living the jazz life to the aspiring guitarist. "People like Walter Booker, Barry Harris, Chris Anderson and Leroy Williams offered me a window to this music," says the guitarist who has been a key player in Harris' band since 1991. "They were my most important mentors. What attracted me to them is the way they always seem to go right to the essence of what music is about. They made me realize how it is never just about chords and scales and musical theory. It's about the story you tell. That's a key lesson for a young musician to learn."

Today, Ben-Hur freely shares that wisdom in the classroom with his own students at the Kaufman Center's Lucy Moses School, where he has directed the jazz program since 1994. And he also applies those priceless life lessons on his own recordings, and in his popular jazz guitar book Talk Jazz (Bohobza Music).

After paying dues through the eighties, Ben-Hur got his first call to gig with Barry Harris in 1991 and four years later he made his first recording as a leader, Backyard on the Swiss TCB label, in which he was accompanied by the Barry Harris trio. He followed that in 1998 with Sofia's Butterfly which earned him the title "Best New Artist" in the Jazziz Annual Reader's pole. In 2001 Ben-Hur released a bop-oriented album titled Anna's Dance, an album that was selected by award-winning critic, Gary Giddins, as "One of The Best Jazz CD's of 2001."

A few years later, Ben-Hur's 2004 outing, Signature, featuring the late,great John Hicks on piano, Rufus Reid on bass and longtime associate Leroy Williams on drums, was a critical sensation that widely established Roni Ben-Hur as a leader with a singular voice, style and message. "Signature is a collection of consummately played music that matches the six-stringer's consistently creative melody reading, soloing and comping with the supportive work of superb sidemen." wrote Philip Booth in Downbeat. "Pervasive on Signature is firm and abundant evidence of master guitarist and inspiring educator Roni Ben-Hur's playing and composing chops," wrote Dr. Herb Wong in the IAJE Journal. In the Star Ledger Zan Stewart commented "Listening to him on his latest Reservoir CD Signature, or in person with his band or with Barry Harris you hear a deep musician. A storyteller, he works with a warm, glowing sound and has an alluring way of combining engaging notes with supple rhythm." And Jazz Times critic Russell Carlson noted, "Ben-Hur's inquisitive lines seem to seek something either unknown or lost and reward most when the investigations surround his own compositions."

Roni Ben-Hur Ben-Hur has performed and recorded as a sideman of choice with such jazz luminaries as Barry Harris, Chris Anderson, Rufus Reid, Walter Booker, Jimmy Heath, Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Cecil Payne, Charles McPherson, Etta Jones, Marcus Belgrave and Bill Doggett. He has led his own band at innumerable gigs around New York, including Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, Sweet Rhythm, Birdland, The Blue Note, Smoke and Lenox Lounge, and has performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, The JVC Jazz Festival, Belleayre Festival, Mellon Jazz Festival, Princeton Jazz Festival, Saratoga Jazz Festival, the Child of the Sun Festival and more. Ben-Hur also plays guitar on his wife's newest record, Amy London: When I Look in Your Eyes which is slated for tandem release with Keepin' it Open in May on Motema Music.

Jazz Education highlights

An avid educator, Ben-Hur's teaching career began in Israel in 1981. Since then, he has established three successful, ongoing high school jazz music programs at the Professional Performing Arts School, The Coalition School for Social Change, and Landmark High School, all in New York City. His inspirational demeanor and communication skills create a strong personal bond with his students, prompting actress and social / educational activist, Bette Midler, to ask Ben-Hur to model a music education program for other public schools in New York City. He has directed the jazz program at Kaufman Center's Lucy Moses School since 1992.

As an author and teacher, his 2003 book "Talk Jazz Guitar" (distributed by Mel Bay) has been published in both English and Japanese. A second book on harmonic concepts for guitar is due out in the Spring of 2007 (also to be distributed by Mel Bay). Aside from his ongoing teaching duties at the Lucy Moses School in Manhattan, he has also been collaborating with his wife, singer Amy London, on running interactive programs that guide elementary school youngsters into the world of jazz. "Teaching is something I feel very passionate about," says Roni. "I like to provide students with valuable information to help them see the bigger picture. They must always remember that music is art and art is for the sake of beauty for all people because it elevates the human spirit."

Over the past 20 years as a performing artist, Ben-Hur has definitely practiced what he preaches.

Roni Ben-Hur website:

http://www.ronibenhur.com/

Doc Dosco is a jazz guitarist, composer and audio consultant living in Los Angeles, CA. His website is located at http://www.docdosco.com, where you can find more information on the 'What's Hot with Jazz Guitar' columns, audio clips of Doc's playing, and many additional features. Doc now endorses Peerless Guitars and has the website Jazz Guitar Zone to help promote Peerless jazz guitars in the US. He also endorses the new Pignose Valve Tube Amps -- great for jazz (and anything else!)

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