Roni Ben-Hur: Fortuna (2009)

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Roni Ben-Hur: Fortuna
The most famous lyric from Charlie Chaplin's bittersweet song "Smile" is, "Smile, though your heart is aching/Smile, even though it's breaking." Roni Ben-Hur knows that methodology, and how: Smile (Motema, 2008), Ben-Hur's benefit disc with fellow guitarist Gene Bertoncini
Gene Bertoncini
Gene Bertoncini
b.1937
guitar
, was originally conceived as a duet with Ben-Hur's longtime bassist Earl May
Earl May
Earl May
1927 - 2008
bass
, who died before recording began. Another Ben-Hur sideman, pianist Ronnie Mathews
Ronnie Mathews
Ronnie Mathews
1935 - 2008
piano
, was battling cancer during the Fortuna sessions, and succumbed to the disease shortly afterwards. In that light, it would be understandable if Ben-Hur's music was less than sprightly. Instead, Fortuna is a sparkling ode to the brightness of life.

The opening title track starts as a meaty, urban flavored piece with Mathews laying down a tough-minded comp pattern off of which Ben-Hur eagerly plays. Rufus Reid

Rufus Reid
Rufus Reid
b.1944
bass, acoustic
's bass is fat and driving, Lewis Nash
Lewis Nash
Lewis Nash
b.1958
drums
's drums have a brilliant sparseness, and Steve Kroom's percussion offers just the right accents. Suddenly, the Ben-Hur original jumps to double-time, and that's when the guitarist really takes off. His hollow-body sound crackles over this new-bop beat, while Mathews transitions from support to soloist, his left hand comping beautifully as his right launches an aggressive solo that maintains a sharp-edged lateral line. The use of color and light is outstanding, and there must have been grins all around the studio when the take was done.

Although nothing else on Fortuna blazes as fast as the title track, the level of energy and brightness never wanes, even when Ben-Hur dives deeply into ballads like Johnny Mandel

Johnny Mandel
Johnny Mandel
b.1925
arranger
's "You are There" and Irving Berlin's "I Got Lost in His Arms." Mathews prefaces the latter tune with a gorgeous in-the-clear opening that the band happily walks through, Nash brushing beautifully behind them. The feel is carefree, the way love is supposed to feel. Ben-Hur shows there's no love like Latin love by infusing Cole Porter
Cole Porter
Cole Porter
1891 - 1964
composer/conductor
's "Were Thine That Special Face" with some tasty bossa. Kroom's tantalizing percussion helps the process, while Reid's bowed solo adds Le Hot Club attitude to the mix.

Ben-Hur may have had extra bossa but he didn't use any on "Modinha," one of two Antonio Carlos Jobim

Antonio Carlos Jobim
Antonio Carlos Jobim
1927 - 1994
piano
tunes on Fortuna. "So Tinha de Ser Com Voce" is handled more traditionally, giving the disc an ebullient closer, but Ben-Hur approaches "Modinha" as if it were chamber music—albeit turbulent chamber music, since Nash and Kroom's dissonant background offers sharp contrast to Ben-Hur's hushed solo. Isaac Albeniz's "Granada" also morphs into a troubled inner dialogue, but "Modinha" walks a singular emotional path.

Ben-Hur's take on Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn
1915 - 1967
piano
's "The Intimacy of the Blues" is Fortuna in microcosm: wonderfully intimate, but with a vigor and urgency that transcends everything, including the pain Mathews endured during the sessions. There's no sign of that suffering anywhere on the date; the hurt only happens when Mathews' loss is remembered. Aside from being another triumph for Ben-Hur, Fortuna is Mathews' last gift to the world. As much as it aches, that deserves a smile.

Track Listing: Fortuna; I Get Lost in His Arms; Guess Who; Modinha; The Intimacy of The Blues; Were Thine that Special Face; A Sleepin' Bee; Granada; You Are There; So Tinha de Ser Com Voce.

Personnel: Roni Ben-Hur; guitar; Ronnie Mathews: piano; Rufus Reid: bass; Lewis Nash: drums; Steve Kroom: percussion.

Record Label: Motema Music

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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