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Roni Ben Hur

WAMC Performing Arts Studio's
Linda Norris Auditorium
Albany, NY
March 31, 2007

by J Hunter

One of the first gigs I ever covered for this site was PlanetArts' One2One duet series at the late, lamented North Pointe Cultural Arts Center in Kinderhook. Aside from the fact that you were guaranteed to see (and interact with) terrific players, the One2One series highlighted a change in my preferences in jazz: Twenty years ago I was totally entranced with the big-canvas, rocked-out works of Steps Ahead and the Chick Corea Elektric Band. Now I found more intimate performances could make me just as happy.

Roni Ben-Hur made me very, very happy Saturday night.

The Israeli-born guitarist's straight-ahead sound has been a mainstay on the New York scene since he arrived from Tel Aviv in 1985. After making his name as a sideman with such notables as Barry Harris and John Hicks, Ben-Hur started recording as a leader ten years later; his fifth disc, Keepin' It Open (Motema), will hit the streets this May. One of the players on that date is bassist Santi Debriano, who joined Ben-Hur at The Linda for a beautiful set that mixed music from the new disc with material from Ben-Hur's earlier recordings.

Dressed in a black two-piece suit and a tan pin-collar shirt unbuttoned at the neck, Ben-Hur got right down to business after a few quick, affable opening remarks, kicking things off with the standard “Can't We Be Friends.” Although this is a quartet piece on the new disc, it slid into the duet format without a hitch, as did Villalobos' “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2”, which Ben-Hur told us was originally written for “8 cellos and a soprano voice.” Ben-Hur dedicated the latter tune to Hicks, “who was taken from us too soon.” (Hicks played on Ben-Hur's original rendition on the 2004 Reservoir release Signature.)

The sound from Ben-Hur's 1969 Gibson Johnny Smith hollow-body was as clean and sweet as you could want it, evoking great memories of Grant Green as Ben-Hur and Debriano rolled through the hour-long set, building on each other's lines the way sculptors build on lumps of clay. Monk's “Think of One” swung like nobody's business, as did Harold Arlen's “Blues in the Night.” Billy Strayhorn's “Something to Live For” was as full of love as Strayhorn himself; the same can be said of the Ben-Hur original “Anna's Dance”, but you'd expect that from a song written for your own daughter. Ben-Hur prefaced the tune with a great story about Anna, then 2 years old, bopping in her car seat to the sound of the radio.

Up until last year, Debriani was off the circuit, working as an educator at UMass-Dartmouth in New Bedford, MA. I think it's safe to say the New England Conservatory alum is back in playing shape. Debriani handled the dual role of foundation-layer and 2nd soloist with decided aplomb. His solo lines were substantial, with a range reminiscent of Ron Carter, and his bowing on “Anna's Dance” and “Bachianas” gave the music the flavor of Django Rheinhardt and Le Hot Club Quintet.

As it turned out, Ben-Hur had an effect before he even hit the stage. The Albany High School Jazz Ensemble (led by music teacher Mike Richmond, who plays a mean 6-string electric bass) opened the evening with a creditable half-hour set that included works by Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter; the septet acquitted itself well, particularly vibes player/percussionist Gabe Gordon. Richmond took time out during the set to thank Ben-Hur - an educator himself - for coming in the day before and working with the ensemble.

All in all, Roni Ben-Hur made a great first impression on the Capital Region. With any luck at all, Ben-Hur will return to the area soon so we can confirm that impression.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.