Roni Ben-Hur: Signature (2005)
The person and musician who is Roni Ben-Hur comes shining through on Signature. The record so full of joy that it is easy to just sit back, relax and enjoy a hour's worth of fine musicand it's much more than just good playing. The late pianist John Hicks, a pro's pro if there ever was one, is in sync with Ben-Hur every step of the way through the varying emotions and styles of these tunes.
Ben-Hur is clearly out of the Wes Montgomery mold (at least) and is extremely secure in his techniqueso much so, in fact, that it fades into the background, allowing his musical ideas to come to the fore. He uses a clear tone and his playing is very clean and precise. Indeed, partly what makes the album so enjoyable is that Ben-Hur is never predictable. He manages to surprise time after time in an extremely satisfying way.
The material comprises an interesting mix of immediately recognizable standards ("Blues In The Night," "Time On My Hands" and "So In Love") and originals ("Mama Bee" and "Eretz" by Ben-Hur, "Slowly But Surely" by Hicks), plus three unusual choices: "Bachiana Brasileiras No. 2, Aria" and "Choro No. 1" by Heitor Villa-Lobos and the relatively lesser-known "Luiza" by Antonio Carlos Jobim.
My interest in Signature was piqued by the South American tunes and Ben-Hur's "Eretz." Villa-Lobos, whose compositions form part of the core repertoire of classic guitar players, is a master of understatement, producing beautiful melodies and harmonies from seeming simplicity. His music is very direct, straightforward and highly emotional.
The Aria played here was originally composed for eight cellos and soprano voice, so the first task was to arrange it for the band, allowing some room for soloing in a composition that changes meters often. Ben-Hur makes the second task seem natural: he fills every note with the passion and emotion that the composer put into the piece. The Choro will be familiar to any classic guitarist, and this arrangement is very true to the spirit of the original.
Jobim's "Luiza" might not be recognized by most people who know his other, more popular tunes. Nevertheless, it is far from a lesser work, and Ben-Hur sings it through his guitar in a simple arrangement that lets the music speak for itself.
Finally, Ben-Hur's own "Eretz" speaks directly from the heart of someone with a love of his homeland, in this case Israel. The tune's emotions, as complex as Israel's history, deliver "... a prayer, my prayer for peace."
Track Listing: Mama Bee; Bachiana Brasileiras No. 2, Aria; Blues In The Night; Eretz; Slowly But Surely; Choro No. 1; Time On My Hands; Luiza; So In Love.
Personnel: Ronnie Ben-Hur: guitar; John Hicks: piano; Rufus Reid: bass; Leroy Williams: drums; Steve Kroon: percussion (2,6,8,9).