“A formidable and consummately lyrical guitarist.”
–Time Out, New York
“A limber and inventive guitarist, Ben-Hur keeps the modernist flame alive and pure, with a low flame burning in every note."
–Gary Giddins, The Village Voice
An esteemed, redoubtably swinging guitarist on the New York City jazz scene for the past 35 years, Roni Ben-Hur has been immersed in the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk since arriving in the Big Apple from Israel in 1985. A protege of bebop piano legend, educator and 1989 NEA Jazz Master Barry Harris, Ben-Hur earned his reputation on the strength of such superb recordings as 1995’s Backyard (with the Barry Harris Trio), 1998’s Sofia’s Butterfly and 2001’s Anna’s Dance (which reunited him with his mentor Harris). A dedicated educator, he is also founding director of the jazz program at the Lucy Moses School at the Kaufman Center in Manhattan, which he established in 1994. Through his ambitious outreach programs — his RBH jazz camps, which take place in Vermont during the summer and in the South of France in the spring and fall, and his popular online workshops and masterclasses (https://www.mymusicmasterclass.com/artist/artists/roni-ben-hur) — Roni has continued to pass on invaluable lessons to a new generation of aspiring jazz musicians.
A multi-directional player, Ben-Hur first hinted at an affinity for Brazilian music on his 2005 album Signature, which included faithful renditions of Jobim’s “Luiza” and Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Choro No. 1.” That fondness for the alluring rhythms and melodies of Brazil was also evident on 2007’s Keepin’ It Open, which balanced Monk and Elmo Hope tunes with bossa novas by Dori Caymmi and Djalma Ferreira, and on 2009’s Fortuna, which alternated between Great American Songbook numbers by Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and bossa novas by Jobim. Roni followed his Brazilian muse on 2011’s Mojave, a quartet date co-led by Trio da Paz bassist Nilson Matta, and 2015’s Alegria De Viver, a collection of intimate duets with legendary Brazilian singer Leny Andrade, once described as “the Sarah Vaughan of bossa nova.” His longstanding fascination with Brazilian music now comes to full fruition on his latest recording, 2020’s Samba Do Arraia. Recorded in Sao Paolo, this quartet project, which he co-led with drummer Percio Sepia, features the great Andrade guesting on four tracks.
Said the guitarist about his twin passions for bebop and bossa nova: “My affinity for jazz and Brazilian music has to do with my roots being North African. With my family coming from Tunisia, I felt very at home with those rhythms since both the Brazilian and jazz rhythms come from Africa. And then when you consider the jazz repertoire, the melodic content of songs by composers like Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin is very much rooted in Jewish music. Also, North Africa is very connected to Moorish sounds, which is very much at the root of Brazilian music as well. I think I have always gravitated toward those beautiful minor key songs and romantic melodies and to those rhythms. It all just feels very natural to me.”
While Roni continues to embrace the music of Brazil, he also remains steadfastly committed to straight ahead jazz. It’s become one of his enduring signatures over the past four decades. “That swing feeling…you can’t beat that,” he enthusiastically affirmed. “And I was very lucky when I started my career here in New York to be around Barry Harris and all these people around him who just loved that feel. And when you play for that audience, you can sense when the beat is right. You can see that in how they move their head and their body. It’s very authentic, very uplifting, really. You get a shot of energy coming through you when that swing beat comes.”
Ben-Hur’s long journey began in a small, provincial desert town in Israel called Dimona, where he was born on July 9, 1962. His family had emigrated to Israel from Tunisia in 1955 during the rebellion against the French colonialists. In 1972, at the age of 10, his surname of Bohobza was legally changed to Ben-Hur. The youngest of seven children, Roni grew up in a household that was economically disadvantaged but very rich with love. “There were a lot of mouths to feed so my parents would work two jobs and there was no time to cultivate things like the arts,” he recalled. “Consequently, I had no musical training except for doing it by myself and finding teachers along the way. It was all very much driven by intuition.”
At age 11, he began taking guitar lessons in Dimona but he soon discovered that his teacher was neither engaged nor encouraging. “This is somebody who would fall asleep during the lesson, so it was very hard,” he recalled. “He actually said to someone else that I was hopeless and that I'd never be able to play the guitar.” Rather than being discouraged, a teenaged Ben-Hur began teaching himself guitar by copying tunes off of records by Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. He first heard jazz in 11th grade when a friend who had lived in America for a couple of years turned him on to albums by The Crusaders’ and to Chick Corea’s The Mad Hatter. “That crossover sound was the start for me,” he said.
Roni's jazz epiphany came at age 17. “I heard this guitar player in Israel named Carl Abramovich. He's not well known, but he was really the best guitar player in Israel in 1979. I first saw him on tv playing ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’ and I just loved his very sweet natural tone. It made me say, ‘Wow, I want to be able to do this.’”
Roni began studying with Abramovich at his home in a suburb north of Tel Aviv. “He introduced me to Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and Joe Pass, and he really helped me get started in learning the language of jazz.” Turning professional, Ben-Hur began working in wedding and bar mitzvah bands, which gave him a well-rounded musical background. “We had to play Moroccan music, Yeminite music, Georgian music, Polish music…whatever the ethnicity of the families in that event, we played it.”
Between gigging and working as a waiter in Jaffa, he had saved up enough money for a flight to New York, arriving in the Big Apple in 1985 at age 22. Roni soon began hanging out at Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theatre in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, where his jazz education deepened. “I was there about four nights a week, just soaking up all the information,” he recalled. “Barry has an incredible amount knowledge and he is very articulate in conveying that information. Even when he talks about very complex concepts and things that will take you years to digest, it makes sense right away. And you never felt that you were just learning exercises with Barry, it was always related to beauty in the music.”
His lessons with Harris were strictly in the oral tradition. “Barry once saw me jotting something down in a notebook and he said, ‘No, don't write anything.’ Then he caught me with a Walkman and he said, ‘Don't tape it.’ In other words, you have to remember it, you had to be there in the moment, you had to absorb it and retain it. He's a very, very special teacher that way.”
As Ben-Hur continued studying with Harris, the teacher and pupil developed a friendship to the point where they were hanging out together in the Weehawken, New Jersey home of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the fabled “Jazz Baroness” and former patron of Thelonious Monk. “Barry lived there and he still resides there today,” said Roni. “By my third month in New York, I got my own place in Union City, New Jersey, not far from where Barry lived. We used to take the bus home together at 3:30 in the morning, or Nica would come to pick him up and I would get in the car with him, which was an incredible experience. So we got close.”
After the Jazz Cultural Theatre closed in 1987 due to an extravagant rent hike, Harris continued holding classes at his Weehawken home with a small group of musicians, including Ben-Hur. “I think the first gig I did with him was in 1991,” Roni recalled. “Ans the first recording we made together was “Backyard” in 1995.” While collaborating with Harris, Ben-Hur also worked with an inner circle of straight ahead jazz elders including saxophonists Cecil Payne and Charles Davis, pianist Chris Anderson, bassists Walter Booker and Earl May and drummer Leroy Williams. “My transition of coming to New York and learning jazz and being associated with all these people who are connected to the source of this music required me to adapt and learn a new musical language,” said Roni. “But there always was a strain of who I am and where I came from in my music. And now I'm more open to ways that I can combine these elements, where I can insert my own roots into the language of jazz and not feel that I'm speaking two languages at the same time.”
Ben-Hur plans to reveal more of himself on his upcoming Dot Time release by revisiting a couple of folkloric tunes from his own past. “I did one song like that on my album in 2007, Keepin' It Open, which was the Israeli folk song ‘Eshkolit,’” he explained. “But there's another song that I want to record, which is based on a poem written in 1941 by Lea Goldberg during the darkest days of the Holocaust. The poem is titled ‘At Telchi Ba’Sadeh’ in Hebrew and the translation is roughly ‘You Will Walk in the Meadow.’ It later became a very popular folk song in the 1970s by Chava Alberstein, who is one of the most popular singers in Israel. And in the song, she asks: Could it be that you could be able to walk in the meadow and just feel the sun and feel the rain on your shoulders, on your breast and your hair, feel the grass on your feet. And there will be no blood. There'll be no fires, there'll be no horror. You'll be allowed to touch things and you'll be allowed to love things. It's basically talking about people being trapped in an awful time, yearning for the same things in life that all humans enjoy and that they have been deprived of. And to me, it feels like it's always that time for some people. For some people in Syria now, there's a holocaust. For some people in Yemen, there's a holocaust. So my plan is to record this song and include musicians from different parts of the world to show that the message is totally relevant today for many people.”
Roni also plans to record another song on the new album in Ladino, a Jewish language derived from Old Spanish. “It's close to Spanish the way Yiddish is very close to German,” he explained. “It’s the language of the people there before the Spanish Inquisition. There are people who live in Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece who speak Ladino still. Jewish people who lived in Palestine for centuries, when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, spoke Ladino. My family is from Tunisia; the North African Jewish community did not speak Ladino, we spoke Arabic. And while most of the population in North Africa came from Spain, the Ladino language did not come with them. But there are many beautiful melodies in Ladino dating back to the time of the Renaissance. And there is one song in particular, La Serana, that is included in the new album.”
While most musicians around the world have had to put their careers on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ben-Hur is now looking forward to resuming activities with his working trio of bassist Harvie S and drummer Tim Horner in support of their acclaimed 2018 recording, Introspection, and also with The Roni Ben-Hur/Percio Sepia Quartet on the strength of their recent release, Samba Do Arraia.