Thanks to the worthy efforts of ambassadors ranging from Louis Armstrong to Norman Grantz, jazz fans have been gifted with a raft of international players whose work teems with the influence of some of the genre's biggest legends. One example: Roni Ben-Hur, the Israeli guitarist who has been serving up an Old School sound reminiscent of Grant Green. I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Ben-Hur in concert with Santi Debriano, bassist on Keepin' It OpenBen-Hur's fifth disc as a leader. As one would expect from a duo gig, the performance had a wonderful intimacy that made you lean into the music, both physically and emotionally. Keepin' It Open delivers that same intimacy, with the added bonus of the energy provided by a much larger band.
Ben-Hur and the primary players on the discDebriano and drummer Lewis Nashease you into the overall vibe with a relaxing take on the opening standard "Can't We Be Friends. Ben-Hur and Debriano opened with this at the show I saw, and while that take was great, Nash's brilliant brushwork makes the tune even better by adding an underlying drive that really gets your feet tapping. But even on swinging numbers like the original "My Man, Harris (Ben-Hur's tribute to mentor Barry Harris) and the Elmo Hope composition "One Second Please, you never lose that comfortable connection, even when the trio is augmented by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and pianist Ronnie Mathews.
Pelt's trumpet is a powerful tool that Ben-Hur uses with great effect, particularly on the Sephardic traditional "Eshkolit. The pensive, prayerful sound combines with Steve Kroon's hissing percussion to help you feel the heat of the Sinai and the loss of so many souls for too many reasons. Pelt gives us a jolt of smoky blues on "Back When, a Ben-Hur original that walks hand-in-glove with the faithful rendition of the Sinatra-Dorsey chestnut "Indian Summer. Mathewswho is an excellent foil for Ben-Hur throughout the datechannels Thelonious Monk on the intro to "Think of One before Ben-Hur takes the melody and shapes it to his liking. Mathews' comping gives the tune the off-kilter accent Monk excelled in.
Ben-Hur is at his best when he is romantic, as in the Brazilian bossa "Like a Lover and the dramatic Spanish tune "Andaluza. There's a quality to his hollow-body attack that works so well when the tempo is slow and the groove is sexy. Ben-Hur's solos are both beautiful and accessible, and prove you don't have to reinvent the wheel in order to make a tune your own. Instead of repeating the past by excessive repetition, Ben-Hur honors that past by letting it inspire him to create remarkable moments of creativity.
While Keepin' It Open is another quality date for Ben-Hur, it is also a flower blooming from seeds sown by Satchmo, Dizzy, and a host of others. With the best perennials, the blooms keep getting bigger and prettier with each passing year.
Roni Ben-Hur: guitar; Santi Debriano: bass; Lewis Nash: drums; Ronnie Mathews: piano; Jeremy Pelt: trumpet; Steve Kroon: percussion.