On this episode of the Sounds Visual spinoff series How Deep Is Your Crate, jazz guitarist Roni Ben-Hur phoned in to talk about his newest album Love Letters (Mighty Quinn Records), and talks some of his favorite albums.
Love Letters is yet another testament to support the fact that the guitarist is widely respected by his peers, and the press, as one of the jazz-elite. Emigrating to the States in 1985, Ben-Hur was one of the first Israeli jazz musicians to make his mark in New York City, preceding the many waves of talented Israeli artists to move to the Big Apple. Upon arriving, Ben-Hur almost immediately began studies at the Jazz Cultural Theater under the legendary pianist Barry Harris. There, the guitarist played with such bop stalwarts as bassist Walter Booker, drummer Leroy Williams, the “musician’s musician,” pianist Chris Anderson, and became an integral member of Harris’s band from 1991 to 2007. Ben-Hur has since amassed an impressive catalogue of highly-successful and acclaimed albums under his own leadership, including Signature (2005), Keepin’ It Open (2007), Fortuna (2009), Smile (with Gene Bertoncini, 2008), Mojave (2011), Our Thing (2012), Alegria De Vivre (with Leny Andrade, 2015), Manhattan Style – Our Thing (2016), Introspection (with Harvie S, 2019), Samba Do Arraial (with Percio Sapia, 2020), Stories (2021) and Something For Kenny (2021). Ben-Hur is also the founder and director of the popular jazz program at New York’s Kaufman Center, and has conducted annual jazz camps in the U.S. and abroad since 2002, exposing thousands of students, hobbyists and aspiring professionals to the challenges, rewards and camaraderie, inherent in this music.
Guitarist Russell Malone comments that, “Everything Roni does is beautiful. He has the magic touch.” The late, esteemed journalist Nat Hentoff of The Wall Street Journal praised Ben-Hur’s duet release, Smile, with Gene Bertoncini, as “a lyrically meditative dialogue.” With Love Letters, the latest masterpiece in his forty-plus year career of performing, composing, recording and teaching jazz, Ben-Hur gives us a musical mosaic that invites us to reconnect with what matters most in life. For Ben-Hur, what matters most are the intimate moments he and his band members create and share with each other and with audiences around the world.
While many of the compositions on Love Letters were written by giants such as Leonard Bernstein (“Lonely Town”), Benny Golson (“Fair Weather”), and Ben-Hur’s long-time mentor, the late, great Barry Harris (“To Dizzy with Love”), Ben-Hur once again showcases his formidable composing chops with four original compositions. The Quartet on Love Letters, Ben-Hur with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Jason Tiemann, creates an irresistible atmosphere of musical harmony and loving connection.
Each of Ben-Hur’s compositions reflect an aspect of the love that has propelled the guitarist to ever greater heights in the life and in jazz. With “To Dizzy with Love,” he shares a memory of his friend Barry Harris with a buoyant rendition of a song they once played together at Birdland. In this interpretation we are treated to a joyous dance of swing and Caribbean rhythms.
On “Seul `a Paris” (alone in Paris), Ben-Hur’s wistful strings and Jensen’s muted trumpet speak of what it is like to fly solo in the “City of Love.”
With the composition, “Waiting for JH”, co-written with the late American pianist Chris Anderson, Ben-Hur sends a “love letter” to the late Jim Harrison, one of the genre’s most indomitable advocates and promoters, who worked tirelessly for a “who’s who” in jazz.
The voice of the unspeakable is heard in “The House that Yosef Built,” a love letter to Ben-Hur’s father. The tune evokes a rush of memories about the hardships his parents faced in their escape from Tunisia in the aftermath of World War II. Guitar, bass and drum deftly lay a rhythmic foundation, and Jensen’s triumphant trumpet celebrates the family’s resilience and the sturdy house and home that Yosef Ben-Hur was determined to build for his family.
Love Letters concludes with Ben-Hur’s soulful instrumental interpretation of the Victor Young classic, “Love Letters.” Speaking from his heart, his eloquent guitar offer a final expression of love for jazz music, his extended jazz family, and for people everywhere. The song and this sensuous album remind us of a timeless truth. In the words of lyricist, Edward Heyman, “Love letters straight from the heart keep us so near while apart.”