Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Concert review: The Roni Ben-Hur Quartet at the St. Paul JCC

From the Department of Better Late than Never

When: Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011 • Where: St. Paul JCCWho: Roni Ben-Hur, guitar; Ryan Cohan, piano; Santi Debriano, bass; Steve Williams, drums 

Roni Ben-Hur
Can you be a jazz venue if you present jazz once a year? If you’re the St. Paul Jewish Community Center, I vote yes.

Each year around this time, Jeffrey Richman, who heads the Center’s Jewish Cultural Arts department, brings in an important Israeli jazz artist or group. 

Last year, it was flutist and composer Mattan Klein and his quartet, with Manu Koch on piano, Gustavo Amarante on bass, and Yuval Lion on drums. The year before, pianist Omer Klein and his trio, bassist Omer Avital and drummer Ziv Ravitz. And the year before, bassist Avishai Cohen, with pianist Shai Maestro. I wasn’t yet hip to the JCC and missed that one.

This year, we were treated to the guitarist Roni Ben-Hur and his quartet: Ryan Cohan on piano, Santi Debriano on bass, Steve Williams on drums. 

Cohan is a well-known Chicago pianist; Debriano, born in Panama, has played with a diverse group of jazz stars ranging from Larry Coryell to Cecil Taylor; Williams spent 25 years with Shirley Horn. 

Ben-Hur was on the front of the wave that brought many Israeli jazz musicians to NYC; he moved here in 1985 to study with pianist Barry Harris. Since then, he has become one of the jazz elite, leading his own bands, performing and recording with artists including Rufus Reid, Ronnie Mathews, Slide Hampton, Clark Terry, Lewis Nash, and many others.

Santi Debriano
This was a night of swinging, tuneful, warm and appealing jazz that dipped into many styles and drew from many influences: bop and ballads, samba, Sephardic folk melodies, fusion, standards, originals.

They led with “Fortuna,” the title track to Ben-Hur’s latest CD (Motema, 2009), an upbeat, sunny opener. From there, the program—two generous sets—was arranged to communicate many moods and feelings.

We heard sensitive, slow, romantic tunes: “Like a Lover,” the Israeli song “Eshkolit,” which Ben-Hur explained translates to “‘grapefruit,’ the equivalent of calling your sweetheart ‘sugarplum’.” Strayhorn’s “Intimacy of the Blues” swung hard, as did Harold Arlen’s “A Sleeping Bee.” 

The old favorite “Can’t We Be Friends,” famously sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on Ella & Louis, was played with a light and lovely touch. A Brazilian love song (I didn’t catch the name) became a duet for guitar and bass; Ben-Hur’s “Eretz,” written for his homeland, was a prayer for peace. The closer was another original, “Guess Who,” which sounded to me like Ellington via Brazil.

Overall, it was a very satisfying evening: top musicians playing with heart and soul. I was moved by the sincerity and emotion of Ben-Hur’s guitar, and his skills as a storyteller. There were many beautiful moments and passages. At the end, I felt I had been given a gift and treated very well.

I started out by sitting too close—in one of the rows nearest the stage, directly in front of a speaker. After the first or second song, I moved to the back, where the sound was much better and the instruments more balanced. Acoustically, the room at the JCC where these events are held is more a high school gymnasium than a concert hall. Those imperfections pale beside the opportunity to see and hear artists who might not otherwise come this far west of the Hudson. I’m looking forward to next year.

Steve Williams

Ryan Cohan

The quartet

Read Andrew Gilbert’s article on Israeli jazz musicians here.
Photos by John Whiting.

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