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
, was originally conceived as a duet with Ben-Hur's longtime bassist Earl May
, who died before recording began. Another Ben-Hur sideman, pianist Ronnie Mathews
, 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's bass is fat and driving, Lewis Nash'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'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'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 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 musicalbeit 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'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.