In November 2007, Roni Ben-Hur and his bassist Earl May approached Motema Records with a great idea: They would record a duo CD, pro bono, as a fundraiser for the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund, a trust created by Engelwood Hospital and Medical Center to fund health care for jazz musicians who can't afford it (i.e. just about every player not named Wynton Marsalis). May's sudden death the following January could have sent this worthy concept off the rails; instead, Gene Bertoncini stepped into the breach, and the results are absolutely brilliant.
Smile (dedicated to May, whose ever-present grin inspired Ben-Hur to include Charlie Chaplin's timeless ballad in this 10-song set) is a living definition of the word "simpatico." These two guitarists have played together on and off since the early '90s, but their interplay and mutual sense of musical space sounds like it comes from a years-long collaboration. In fact, the tunes themselves become secondary to experiencing the entrancing sound that comes from the multi-layered dialogue between Ben-Hur's hollow-body electric and Bertoncini's nylon-string acoustic.
Bertoncini leads off on the Charles Fox/Norman Gimble classic "Killing Me Softly," instantly achieving an intimacy that almost eclipses Roberta Flack's signature performance. When Ben-Hur joins in on the chorus, none of that intimacy is lost; instead, a conversation ensues between two people who witnessed the same thing. Although both speakers are passionate about what they experienced, the conversation stays hushed, as if they don't want anyone to hear about the singer who "sang as if he knew me/In all my dark despair..."
While the standards on Smile seem straightforward, Ben-Hur and Bertoncini add a few personal touches. The chorus of "Killing Me Softly" gets a little bit of a stagger, as if the protagonists are slightly stunned at their antagonist's insight, while Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You" has a sheen that comes from the Brazilian sun. Meanwhile, "Besame Mucho" is as rich and romantic as it's supposed to be, just as the title track has the stiff upper lip that it should, and Dizzy's own "That's Earl, Brother" gets down and swings even as it stays within the date's relatively sedate boundaries.
Both players bring originals to the partyBen-Hur with "Anna's Dance" and "Sofia's Butterfly" (each tune named for one of Ben-Hur's daughters), Bertoncini with "You Are a Story" and "Set Blue" (a deconstruction of "Bluesette")but none of them have any sense of ownership, or an attitude of "This is my song!" The spirit of simpatico remains strong, as does the air of cooperation and collaboration. It gets to the point where the only way to discern who's playing what is with a good set of headphones. Happily, that makes the experience all the more enjoyable.
Apart from being a beautiful set, Smile literally enriches an aspect of Dizzy Gillespie's legacy that many people may be unaware of. If that isn't a win-win situation, it will do until a better example comes along.