Guitarist Ron Ben-Hur

by Michael Raitzyk. On Sunday, April 27th, the Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society (BCJS) finished out their 23rd season with the Roni Ben-Hur Sextet at Towson University’s Center for the Arts. Band members included Victor Lewis on drums, Santi Debriano on bass, George Cables on piano, Steve Wilson on alto sax and flute, Freddie Hendrix on trumpet, and Roni Ben-Hur on guitar. The concert was entitled “A Tribute to Wes Montgomery and Grant Green.”

Ben-Hur moved to the US in 1985 from Israel and went to New York City to play and learn jazz guitar. Pianist/jazz educator Barry Harris was a major influence on Ben-Hur’s bebop guitar concept, and through his association with Harris he played and made recordings with many great jazz musicians, including two with Harris, Backyard (1996) and Anna’s Dance (2001).

Ben-Hur definitely comes from the Montgomery/Green/ Jim Hall school of guitar. His harmonic concept sits right in the 1960s, with clean, single-note lines, the frequent use of octaves (á la Montgomery) and diatonic block chords. I also hear some Johnny Smith influence in Ben-Hur’s block-chord ballad playing. He has a “pure” archtop guitar sound with no use of electronic effects, and it suits him well. It’s refreshing to hear this old school style: there are keepers of the flame, and Roni Ben-Hur is a keeper.

Set one started with a couple of Montgomery’s compositions—”Jingles” and “West Coast Blues.” Wilson played flute on “West Coast Blues,” and his work was welcome, because jazz flute is a sound you don’t get to hear a lot. Hendrix, a veteran of the Count Basie Orchestra, spent much of his solo time in the mid and upper register of the trumpet. The next tune, “Body and Soul,” began with a beautiful (yet brief) guitar chord solo. A relentless jazz educator who started a jazz program at the Kaufman Music Center’s Lucy Moses School, a community arts school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ben-Hur did a little bit of teaching from the stage in his introduction to the tune, noting that many of us do not know who wrote tunes like “Body and Soul” and other treasured standards.

The fourth tune of the set, “Afroscopic,” was written by Debriano, and was recorded on the 2012 CD Our Thing. This 6/8 Afro-Cuban piece was a minor-blues-based tune with chord changes that sounded a hell of a lot like Montgomery’s tune “Full House.” The set ended with Green’s composition “Jean de Fleur,” from his classic album Idle Moments. Drummer Lewis took his time on his solo, displaying phenomenal technique, developing ideas, and getting some awesome tones and shades from his cymbals.

Set two opened with an Elmo Hope (remember him?) composition entitled “One Second, Please,” on which Ben-Hur played a lyrical solo using both single lines and octaves. The next tune, “Something Went Wrong,” was written by Frank Wess. Wilson’s flute playing was no doubt meant to honor Wess’s phenomenal work on jazz flute. When the front line traded fours, they created a nice game of musical “hot potato,” passing around musical ideas among guitar, flute and trumpet.

After the tune, Ben-Hur brought our attention to the fact that April 29th was Jazz History Day, as declared by the United Nations. He also noted that it was Duke Ellington’s birthday, and with that, George Cables launched into a solo performance of “Prelude to a Kiss.” This was by far the most harmonically adventurous solo of the concert. Cables’s touch, his use of the ENTIRE keyboard and altered chords, and his mastery of dissonance all created joyous musical excitement. Let’s face it: most jazz pianists are light years ahead of most jazz guitarists when it comes to advanced harmonies. By the nature of their instrument, jazz guitarists have to work very hard to keep up with the keyboard. You guitarists know exactly what I’m talking about!

When “Prelude” ended, the band segued into “I Let a Song Go out of My Heart.” The two highlights here were Hendrix’s swinging trumpet solo and Debriano’s bass solo. At one point he played flamenco-style chords with his right thumb brushing across the strings—shades of Jimmy Garrison. Cables’s composition “I Told You So” featured fine Latin groove solos by himself, Wilson, Hendrix (on flugelhorn) and Ben-Hur.

The concert ended with Montgomery’s “Four on Six,” whose title alludes to four fingers on six strings. The band played a beautifully harmonized melody and Ben-Hur launched into a guitar solo that sounded a lot like something that . . . ah . . . Wes Montgomery might play. After everyone soloed, the band traded eights and fours with Lewis, who is an amazing musical thinker. Anything he can think of, he can play. It was exciting to watch and hear.

There were some problems at the concert. The folks running the sound at Towson were unable to give us a balanced mix: at times, the trumpet microphone was so loud I could barely hear the drums, the piano was not loud enough, and so forth. At one point, Ben-Hur had to turn off his monitor because it was too loud. Also, Bill Murray, who introduced the show, made it very clear that the BCJS has taken a hit financially this past season. From the stage, he suggested that if anyone in the audience had any good ideas about keeping things together for a possible 24th season, to please speak with him in lobby at the intermission. Like all jazz organizations, the BCJS needs your support.

– Michael Raitzyk

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