Guitarist Roni Ben-Hur is an old soul. Uninterested in ostentation, the Israeli-born guitarist has been content to release a series of warm-hearted recordings that favor partnership over pomposity. Half his 12 leader dates have been duets or are co-credited. Stories isn't one of them, but it might as well be. This is an ensemble recording, patient and glowing with wisdom.
Ben-Hur is helped by the elder masters he often chooses to bring gravity and wisdom to his dates. On Stories they are bassist Harvie S, drummer Victor Lewis. And pianist George Cables, whose taste and economy are a miracle throughout (why isn't this man in the studios more often?). Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen may be the junior member, but her radiant tone and thoughtful lines earn her a seat at the grown-ups' table.
Together they create an atmosphere where familiarity and affection reign. Listening to Stories is like being invited to a companionable potluck dinner where each guest brings his or her signature dish. Magos Herrera's slow-burn intensity illuminates "La Serena," a Sephardic folk song of unrequited love sung in Ladino. She returns for "A Redoblar" (Let's Roll), an anthem of the oppressed that marches to a throbbing habañera rhythm where the Mexican vocalist's understated emotionality finds an echo in solos by the leader and Cables before Jensen turns up the heat for her most impassioned statement of the session.
But there are humor and high spirits here, too. Elmo Hope's "Something for Kenny" opens with a tricky head danced in Fred-and-Ginger unison by Ben-Hur and Jensen. "Ma'of" is a charming and sprightly song written by Ben-Hur for his daughters. On "Melodious Funk" Cables raids the fridge for Monkish ingredientsnear-quotes, time-warps and and wrong-footed accentsto whip-up a 30-bar blues pastiche. After a sly solo from the composer, Jensen solos with airiness and wry harmonic wit. Was she thinking of fellow Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler? Entering on tiptoe, Ben-Hur dances the tribute home with a single-note solo as Lewis flirts with a shuffle beat.
The cut that lingers in memory is "Ha'omnam," a nod to a poem written during the darkest days of the Holocaust by Leah Goldberg. To the graceful arabesque of Ben-Hur's Andalusian-flavored melody, Israeli vocalist Tamuz Nissim sings in Hebrew, "You shall walk in the field, alone, without being burnt by the fires on the roads that bristled from terror and blood." That's a message we could all use after the anxiety and isolation of 2020/2021.
La Serena; Something for Kenny; But I Had to Say Goodbye; Ma'of; Ha'omnam; After the Morning; A
Redoblar; Melodious Funk.
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