Jazz guitarist Roni Ben-Hur has earned a sterling reputation as a musician and educator, renowned for his golden tone, improvisational brilliance, compositional lyricism and ability to charm peers, students and listeners alike. Eminent jazz critic Gary Giddins wrote in the Village Voice: “A limber and inventive guitarist, Ben-Hur keeps the modernist flame alive and pure, with a low flame burning in every note… [He’s] a guitarist who knows the changes and his own mind.” Roni – born in Israel in 1962 but a longtime American citizen, based in New York City – has recorded a dozen albums as leader or co-leader, with The New York Times praising his “crisp, fluid style” and Time Out New York calling him “a formidable and consummately lyrical guitarist.”
He has developed a rare facility in both straight-ahead jazz and Brazilian styles, evidenced by his work with masters in both fields, from pianist Barry Harris and saxophonist/flautist Frank Wess to vocalist Leny Andrade. The Star-Ledger of New Jersey summed up Roni this way: “A deep musician, a storyteller, Ben-Hur works with a warm, glowing sound and has an alluring way of combining engaging notes with supple rhythm.” Along with releasing acclaimed educational products – such as the instructional DVD Chordability and method book Talk Jazz: Guitar – Roni has directed international jazz camps for some 15 years. Jazz guitar star Russell Malone got it right when he said: “Everything Roni does is beautiful. He has the magic touch.”
Originally from Tunisia, Roni’s family relocated to Dimona, Israel, where he was born into a large family – teaching him good ensemble values early on. The guitarist began playing in wedding bands and in Tel Aviv clubs as a teenager enraptured by the recordings of Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Jim Hall and Kenny Burrell. The young musician also came to love the classical Spanish repertoire via Segovia, hearing a Moorish sound that resonated with his family’s North African roots. Later, after moving to New York in 1985, he would fall for Brazilian music, particularly through the work of guitarist-composer Baden Powell. When Roni came onto the New York jazz scene, he was fortunate to be taken under the wing of veteran jazz pianist Barry Harris, a Monk disciple and Grammy Award-winner who led the influential Jazz Cultural Theater during the mid-’80s in Manhattan. The up-and-coming guitarist played in Harris’s band, absorbing musical wisdom and life lessons.
As it was for Harris, teaching has long been important to Roni, and the guitarist has developed an international reach as an educator over the years. As founding director of the jazz program at the Lucy Moses School at the Kaufman Center in Manhattan starting in 1994, he educated a multitude of jazz enthusiasts in ensemble playing, improvisation and jazz guitar. Over the years, Roni has led jazz camps from Maine and New York to such far-flung locales as Brazil, Puerto Rico and Turkey, teaching workshops in straight-ahead jazz, Latin jazz and Brazilian jazz. Roni’s newest educational ventures – the Roni Ben-Hur Jazz Camps – are located in the South of France near Avignon and at Green Mountain College in Vermont.
Reflecting on his teaching philosophy, Roni says: “I learned a lot about teaching from Barry Harris as a mentor. It’s always about love of the music and respect for the student – and keeping the bigger picture in mind, not just mastering tunes. The people who come to my jazz camps are serious amateurs. I give them the opportunity to learn a lot – repertoire, rhythms, techniques – but I also give them the space to enjoy themselves in a relaxed, vacation-friendly environment, with a lot of hanging out and jam sessions. The goal is to have fun learning, so that the experience is rewarding and refreshing. Most of the students are accomplished professionals beyond music – they’re doctors, lawyers, business people. I’m a believer in practice, of course, but I aim to teach students at their own pace. And I want the jazz-camp participants to learn music through a love of the experience, not only through theory. I emphasize aural learning so that students can absorb music through their ears and fingers. Assimilating it that way means it really sticks with you.”
Roni’s latest recording project – to be released in spring 2018 via the Jazzheads imprint – finds him in league with bassist Harvie S. and drummer Tim Horner, exploring classics by jazz composers from Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk and Tadd Dameron to Kenny Dorham, George Shearing and Joe Henderson. The album, titled Introspection, also includes Brazilian numbers by Baden Powell and Ary Barroso, as well as a Jerome Kern standard. “It was fun and stimulating to record this music with Harvie – he has a great sound and rhythmic feel, besides being a uniquely melodic soloist,” Roni says. “We’ve made a beautiful album together, and I’m excited to get it out there. As many records as I’ve made, shows I’ve played, workshops I’ve taught, music always feels so fresh to me. I’m always wanting to share it with colleagues, students and listeners – that’s what music is great for, sharing.”
Released in 2016 via Jazzheads, the album Manhattan Style found Roni once again in the company of Panamanian-born bassist Santi Debriano and Brazilian drummer Duduka Da Fonseca as the starry cooperative trio Our Thing. Marked by the group’s characteristically soulful grooves, telepathic interplay and richly organic ensemble sound, Manhattan Style – the trio’s second record together – presents originals by all three members alongside interpretations of off-the-beaten-track tunes by Duke Ellington (“African Flower”), Ornette Coleman (“The Blessing”) and Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Polo Pony”). As Timothy Porter’s liner notes point out, referencing the album title, the trio’s blend of sounds and personalities reflects the cultural buzz of Manhattan: “ ‘The City,’ as it’s often called, is like jazz itself – vibrant, multi-layered, fluid and resting on a foundation that respects the past and embraces new formulations and elements from around the world. It is both a microcosm of what’s happening now, and an island unto itself.” New York City Jazz Record noted the album’s “amazing cohesiveness,” along with singling out how the Roni’s “fluidity shines whether playing chords or single-note lines in double time.” While his solos and ensemble playing enliven every track – Hot House magazine remarking on the guitarist’s “warm, rich tone” – Roni’s compositional contributions to the album include the grooving, Middle East-evoking opener “Home,” the lyrical “Amy” and playful, highly rhythmic “Ma’hof.”
The Our Thing trio’s eponymous first album, released by Motéma in 2012, ranged from deeply swinging interpretations of Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys” and Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” to a pair of poetic tunes by Jobim and several lovely originals that channel the players’ Middle Eastern, Latin and Brazilian heritages through a post-bop prism. One of Roni’s compositions is a fresh rendition of a longtime favorite in his songbook: “Anna’s Dance,” written for one of his two daughters. DownBeat called Our Thing “mesmerizing” and The New York Times praised it as “engaging,” while New York City Jazz Record captured the disc’s virtues colorfully: “Ben-Hur, Debriano and Da Fonseca sway with the grace of palm trees, exuding a laidback introspection.” The Buffalo News declared the record as “delectable jazz internationalism of near-Olympic variety. Ben-Hur and Debriano are players of first-rate fluency and taste.”
Roni says about the Our Thing trio: “We’re each of us leaders in our own right, with our own ideas and approaches. Our backgrounds are from different parts of the world, with deep ethnic roots – which is itself a very New York thing. We produced Manhattan Style on our own, collaborating to create arrangements on the spot. It was a labor of love by musicians who are passionate about playing well together and learning from each other – about different tunes, grooves, harmonies. There’s a lot of chemistry and camaraderie whenever we’re together.”
Just prior to Manhattan Style, Roni collaborated closely with famed singer Leny Andrade – whose samba-meets-jazz stylings inspired Tony Bennett to dub her “the Ella Fitzgerald of Brazil.” The duo has performed around the world, from New York’s Birdland and Dizzy’s in Jazz at Lincoln Center to top clubs in Brazil and Australia. They also recorded the duo album Alegria de Viver (Motéma, 2014), delving deep into the bossa-nova songbook for gems beyond those usually recorded. JazzTimes marveled over the record: “Eschewing her long-favored trio format, Leny Andrade has found an ideal duet partner in Israeli-American guitarist Roni Ben-Hur, whom she met in 2012 when she guest-lectured at his Brazilian music camp in Maine… End-to-end, this is a flawlessly beautiful alliance.” New York City Jazz Record called Roni an “inspired partner” for the singer, noting his “supple rhythm and glowing sound.” Jazz Weekly joined in the praise, describing the album as “charming, intimate… It’s casual yet passionate, like a cozy late night after all the guests have left.”
The experience of working with Andrade was special, Roni says: “Leny is a great, iconic artist. Her voice is this incredible instrument, and she has a vast knowledge of tunes. She really communicates the depth of Brazilian music. Making the album in Rio de Janeiro with her was an honor, recording together on the studio floor, organically. And then we performed the music together in New York, Brazil, Australia – some extraordinary nights. Working with her was like having a window into the world of Brazilian music, as she knew all the greatest original composers of bossa nova from Jobim on down – she’s full of stories about these historic figures. Leny is plugged into the source, like Ella with Cole Porter.”
Long versed in the feel of Brazilian rhythms, Roni paired with São Paulo-born bassist Nilson Matta to record the beautiful album Mojave (Motéma, 2011). The two players are each masters of a musical tradition, the guitarist with bebop and the bassist with samba. Mojave saw them meld the two worlds with “ease and naturalness,” according to JazzTimes, the pair working with New York jazz drummer Victor Lewis and Brazilian percussionist Café. They ranged from pieces by such Brazilian icons as Jobim, Baden Powell and choro pioneer Pixinguinha to Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” and deftly rhythmic originals by all four players. One of Roni’s contributions is the moody beauty “Eretz” (Hebrew for “land”), another of his signature tunes interpreted afresh. All Music Guide called the blend of Roni’s guitar and Matta’s double-bass “magic,” while Rochester City Newspaper offered a similarly glowing judgment: “Mojave is magical from start to finish... The combination of Matta’s samba and Ben-Hur’s swing is a marriage made in heaven.”
Mojave was the second in Motéma’s Jazz Therapy series. The series was co-founded by Roni and the label to raise money and awareness for the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund of New Jersey’s Englewood Hospital and Medical Center Foundation, which provides care for uninsured jazz musicians. The first album in the series was Smile, Roni’s 2008 duo set with veteran guitarist Gene Bertoncini. Acclaim for this record was widespread, with The New York Times lauding its “sophisticated and lyrical” musicianship. DownBeat simply called the album “stunning,” as the players stretch from the Charlie Chaplin title track and the Arlen-Mercer standard “Out of This World” to an enterprising take on Roberta Flack’s hit “Killing Me Softly” and two of Roni’s personal standards – his “Anna’s Dance,” written for one daughter, and “Sofia’s Butterfly,” penned for the other. Jazz sage Nat Hentoff praised the “lyrically meditative dialogue” between the two guitarists in the Wall Street Journal, while the Washington Post was enamored by “the dazzling dexterity and tasteful elegance of these duets.”
Two other key albums in Roni’s discography are Fortuna (Motéma, 2009) and Keepin’ It Open (Motéma, 2007), both quintet sets with piano vet Ronnie Matthews and ultra-swinging drummer Lewis Nash, plus percussionist Steve Kroon. Keepin’ It Open, which also includes bassist Santi Debriano and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt in the group, has a wide purview, from Monk’s rollicking “Think of One” to a dark-hued old Sephardic melody, “Eshkolit.” Tapping into his family’s Sephardic Jewish roots and his love of the Spanish classical guitar repertoire, Roni recasts Granados’ “Andaluza” as an ensemble piece. And the guitarist’s originals include the finger-snapping “My Man, Harris,” a tribute to Barry Harris. JazzTimes called the album “a delight from start to finish,” while the All Music Guide avowed that Roni “can swing as hard as anyone.”
Fortuna, which featured Rufus Reid on double-bass, saw Roni recast Albéniz’s “Granada” with an ear for the early Israeli popular music influenced by the Moorish sound. Along with two Jobim numbers, the disc also includes the Irving Berlin ballad “I Got Lost in his Arms” and Roni’s funky original “Guess Who.” Jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern listed Fortuna as one of his top 10 discs of 2009. JazzTimes described the album this way: “A keen story teller, Ben-Hur’s dexterous, melodic and emotive playing is supported by a tight-knit cast of stellar musicians… his skill and warm tone underscoring the band’s chemistry.” All About Jazz said, “Fortuna is a sparkling ode to the brightness of life.”
Roni’s album Signature (Reservoir, 2005) put the guitarist in the serious company of pianist John Hicks, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Leroy Williams, again plus Steve Kroon. The tracks include the first appearance of Roni’s gem “Eretz,” plus two pieces by Villa-Lobos and tunes by Jobim and Cole Porter. DownBeat said: “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. Ben-Hur’s originals are similarly impressive, from opening burner ‘Mama Bee,’ which dazzles with a brilliantly constructed guitar solo, to ‘Eretz,’ a gorgeous ballad intended as a tribute to the guitarist’s native Israel that feels like an instant standard.”
For Anna’s Dance (Reservoir, 2001), Roni convened a combo of elders: Barry Harris on piano, Charles Davis on saxophone, Walter Booker on double-bass, Leroy Williams on drums. The highlights include the debut of Roni’s title composition, as well as the great Billy Strayhorn ballad “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.” In the Village Voice, Gary Giddins said: “As eloquent as a cool breeze, this understated exercise in bebop equilibrium goes down so easy that you might underestimate the magic. Ben-Hur and Charles Davis, who trades in his Sun Ra baritone for suave tenor, speak Harris’s lingo like natives.” Roni kick-started his discography with two bebop showcases. Sofia’s Butterfly (TCB, 1998) saw the guitarist – with drummer Leroy Williams and bassist Lisle Atkinson in tow – offering much promise; there’s the ultra-fluid virtuosity of his take on Monk’s “Four in One,” not to mention the first appearances of his original title tune and “Fortuna.” And Roni made his initial splash on record with Backyard (TCB, 1996), which presented him alongside the Barry Harris Trio.
In addition to leading his own bands, Roni has shared the stage and the studio not only with the heroes and great peers mentioned above but with the likes of Cecil Payne, Etta Jones, Marcus Belgrave, Walter Booker, Diane Schuur, Charles McPherson, Jimmy Heath, Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Earl May, Teri Thornton and Bill Doggett. Of late, Roni has collaborated with pianist Roger Kellaway, with whom he played Mezzrow and the Kitano in New York.
Roni regularly performs in the top jazz venues and in major festivals across the country and around the world. As an educator, he has established jazz programs in New York City high schools, along with presenting workshops for students of all ages in the U.S. and Europe. His instructional releases include the DVD Chordability (Motéma, 2011), which offers 20 lessons on chord voicings and jazz harmony for intermediate and advanced guitarists. Roni also translated “the Barry Harris method” to guitar with the publication Talk Jazz: Guitar (Mel Bay, 2003), which has appeared in English and Japanese editions. Online, he offers a tutorial via mymusicmasterclass.com and www.mikesmasterclasses.com.
— Bradley Bambarger