Israel-born guitarist Roni Ben-Hur played three concerts
and took part in a jazz seminar in Madrid (Spain) last February.
A frequent sideman of pianist Barry Harris, Ben-Hur is about
to release his fourth CD, Keepin' It Open (Motema)
along with Ronnie Mathews, Lewis Nash, Santi DeBriano, Jeremy
Pelt and Steve Kroon. Ben-Hur, who's also an accomplished
educator, will publish a new Jazz method on harmonic concepts
for guitar sometime next Spring.
During his sojourn in Madrid he was interviewed on February
1 by Sergio Cabanillas for his radio show "Parallel Universes"
at Onda Verde (Madrid 107.9 FM). New pieces from Keepin'
It Open were played on the show, which also had Tomajazz
editor Arturo Mora and guitarist Héctor García
Roel helping out with the language barrier.
From left to right: Roni Ben-Hur, Arturo Mora, Sergio Cabanillas
and Héctor García Roel
Photography © 2007 Haim Ben-Hur
ARTURO MORA: You were born in Israel to a Tunisian
family. In your website you talk about how important the celebratory
side of music is in your family. If you had to compare the
celebratory side of jazz with its intellectual facets, which
one would tip the balance for you?
RONI BEN-HUR: I think it's very important to
keep them combined, that's what makes this music what it is.
The celebratory part of Jazz comes from the people, it's music
that is derived from people, not necessarily people who studied
music, not necessarily people who went to the Conservatory,
but people who came out into this music from their tradition,
from their homes, from their houses of worship, that's what
gives Jazz the element of spontaneity, originality, the fact
that everyone can be very individual. And the fact that this
is music that is well studied (musicians spend their time
expanding their understanding of music) is what makes it so
ARTURO MORA: Talking about the development of
Jazz, in your upcoming album there's a traditional Israeli
song, there's bossa nova, there's a Spanish song by Enrique
Granados, and in the previous CD, Signatures, there
were two compositions by Heitor Villa-Lobos and another one
by Jobim. Tell us about the challenge you face when you adapt
songs that were conceived in musical territories outside the
RONI BEN-HUR: I think it's not such a big challenge
as long as you're not trying to be a purist. Before the advent
of recording equipment, the only way music was passed along
was through writing. Still there was always room for interpretations.
People were able to interpret out of the composer's music,
and re-arrange it. I think that many pieces lend themselves
to it, and not necessarily to be played note by note as in
the arrangement it was originally conceived.
ARTURO MORA: What pieces from other musical
contexts would you like to adapt in the near future?
RONI BEN-HUR: Well, I think I would... I couldn't
tell you now what it would be. I know that there are old Israeli
traditional songs that I would like to do, and also music
from the religious literature, from the Sephardic religious
literature. Spanish music is music I always felt very close
to, and flamenco music too, but I couldn't really say my next
project would include this and that...
ARTURO MORA: What would you emphasize from what
you've learned playing with Barry Harris?
RONI BEN-HUR: That music is there for beauty,
it's there to touch and move people. It's supposed to move
people on an emotional level, and not impress them on an intellectual
ARTURO MORA: Having played with Barry Harris,
John Hicks, Chris Anderson... harmonically speaking, how do
you combine guitar and piano?
RONI BEN-HUR: It's not difficult if you listen.
The people you mentioned are big listeners, and there's one
more thing I've learned from them: as long as you listen to
one another, it's not difficult, it's like two people who
are very, very bright on one specific topic, but they can
have a conversation, and they can both present an idea together.
If the person you play with listens to you, and is always
receptive to what you're doing, then there's always room for
what you're doing.
SERGIO CABANILLAS: From the technical point
of view, besides listening and interacting, how do you distribute
the harmonic work when you're playing with a piano player
in order to avoid 'stepping' into each other's range?
RONI BEN-HUR: I don't think there's a set rule.
The easy way out is that the piano has it. The next easier
thing is: you trade. In other words, the piano plays some,
the guitar plays some, but the most rewarding way is when
you get into a combination, when you stay alert and you listen
constantly, and you're very sensitive to each other, and then
it works out.
SERGIO CABANILLAS: So you can conceive it as
sharing the register: less weight on the piano's left hand
while the guitar is playing on the lower strings and vice
versa on the higher notes?
RONI BEN-HUR: Yes, but it doesn't have to be
determined ahead of time. All those problems solve themselves
when the listening is there. If you work it all out ahead
of time and the listening is not there, it's not going to
SERGIO CABANILLAS: How do you feel about John
RONI BEN-HUR: Very hard. When John passed away
– it was not long ago, actually I had played with him
a couple of weeks before – I was caught by surprise.
I felt very close to him, I felt that he was a very close
friend. I went to his memorial in New York at St. Peter's
church (sort of the 'Jazz church') and they have memorial
services for Jazz musicians; everybody who got up and spoke
was talking about how close they were to John Hicks and what
a great and close friend he was to them. To me it was a lesson
to see what a wonderful person he was and what a great testimony
to his life that all the people he touched felt like he was
their best friend.
SERGIO CABANILLAS: And on the musical side?
RONI BEN-HUR: Musically he was wonderful to
work with. He was a world class pianist, composer, arranger
and bandleader, but when he worked in my band and we did the
record, he was completely receptive to anything that I wanted
to do, and all his purpose was to make me get the sound that
I was looking for.
ARTURO MORA: Regarding your wife Amy London,
the great Jazz and Broadway singer, how has she influenced
RONI BEN-HUR: Sure; for one thing, she's a wonderful
vocalist and she has a great new CD with John Hicks on it.
It should come out in May. She's influenced me in many ways,
and I've grown musically with her just by working with a great
singer. She's also connected me to the Great American Songbook,
the literature that comes out of Broadway, musicals and movies
from the thirties and forties and fifties.
ARTURO MORA: You've published a jazz guitar
book named Talk Jazz. What's the difference between
"playing Jazz" and "talking Jazz"?
RONI BEN-HUR: If you play Jazz right, you talk
Jazz. The book is called Talk Jazz because it deals
directly with the language and the vocabulary of the Jazz
world. It comes to help students get acquainted with the vocabulary,
with specific ways of playing things that sound in the Jazz
idiom, just theoretical concept but actual musical sentences.
ARTURO MORA: As a Jazz educator, do you learn
teaching? What kind of feedback do you get from your students?
RONI BEN-HUR: I learn a great deal from the
students. When you teach something and you speak it out, for
one thing it leaves you, and something else has to come in,
so you keep growing. Also, whenever you teach something, you
hear it and you examine it again and re-learn it, and that's
another growth process.
ARTURO MORA: There's an old saying in education
that goes like: “If you don't know how to explain it,
you just don't know it". Does that apply to your way
RONI BEN-HUR: Well, I try to find the best way
to explain it, based on how I understood it; what helps me
teach well is that I had lo learn a lot, so I could understand
all the ambiguousness; you don't usually understand what it
means, and everytime I see students like that, I see myself
in that, so I try to find the way to explain it, but I know
two things; one, I can never explain it completely, and the
next thing, I don't know the truth. I always tell the students
"I'm not telling you this is it, I'm telling you what
I know and how I see it, and you're going to hear that in
many different ways and different things and they might be
the truth, maybe there's no truth."
ARTURO MORA: Are you in touch with the Israeli
RONI BEN-HUR: Not so much. Actually in New York
I see a lot of Israeli musicians who come, more now than before.
I think for Israelis it's an easy transition into Jazz, because
Israel is such a melting pot of so many different kinds of
music and the rhythms of Jazz exist in those kind of rhythmic
things that happen in the different traditional Israeli music,
but I'm not in touch with the Israeli scene in Israel itself.
SERGIO CABANILLAS: Could you recommend us some
names of Israeli musicians based in NYC and some from the
NYC scene itself.
RONI BEN-HUR: There are so many... I'd hate
to name names because I would miss so many people out... but
I would say that there are a lot of wonderful new musicians
in NY and there are so many different styles that they're
exploring, some of them are traditional Jazz, some of them
incorporating world music, some incorporating traditional
music... there are all kinds of things that happen in New
York, and if somebody really wants to find out about different
people in NY, find a New York Jazz calendar online and follow
the links from the clubs to the different musicians, because
there are so many...
SERGIO CABANILLAS: Sorry, but we need to learn
RONI BEN-HUR: Uff, that's tough... well, there's
a piano player named Sasha Perry, a bass player named Ari
Roland, an arranger named Chris Byars, there are so many,
really a lot... everybody comes to New York, everybody gets
attracted, incredible talents live there... I'd do a disjustice
if I left so many out...
SERGIO CABANILLAS: What made you choose tradition
instead of experimentation? What could be your future ways
of development in your music career?
RONI BEN-HUR: Roots is a very important word
here. Bebop have been my roots for the last twenty years,
but there are also the twenty years before that, and those
roots are coming out also in the music, and I think that what
happened in my last few recordings is that I was more aware
of what music wants to come out and what music I'm attracted
to, and I stopped worrying about what am I supposed to play
and more about what I want to play. In the future I think
I'll do more of the same, more compositions and arranging
– I really enjoy arranging – and I'd like to do
projects that incorporate more classical music, more ethnic
music as well as traditional Jazz.
ARTURO MORA: What are your criteria to choose
a bass player and a drummer?
RONI BEN-HUR: Well, they have to swing, they've
to have a great sound, and they have to be great listeners.
They can't be boxed in. I could play with a drummer who just
thinks in one form, like Bebop or Jazz, but I like a drummer
who thinks beyond that.
ARTURO MORA: How do you build up a repertoire
for a recording session?
RONI BEN-HUR: For a recording session, you usually
know three or four months ahead of time that you're going
to do a record. I start building up a list of songs, things
that maybe before that time I was thinking that I'd like to
do, and usually forty percent of that stays in the end. I
stay involved in thinking about it throughout those weeks
and the instrumentation... and then certain songs come to
mind, and it could be three months or two weeks before the
recording when it all comes together. It's a process that
never ends until the recording comes about. Whatever it is,
it has to be something that is really moving to me, something
that I feel very involved in. It can't be something that I
do because I think "oh, it's a good idea to include it"
or "it's a song that would sell well" or “somebody
wants me to play that".
ARTURO MORA: And what about the gigs, are they
something pre-determined or do you decide as you go along
during the show?
RONI BEN-HUR: No, I can go to a gig with certain
tunes in mind that I'd like to play, but it has to be flexible,
you have to see the audience, you have to see what they respond
to, what kind of audience you have, what the time is... you
have to be flexible in a way that you don't stick to a list,
because sometimes maybe a ballad is due, maybe you want to
start with an up tune but maybe a bossa nova would be better,
so maybe there's a pool of songs that you pull from, but you
don't necessarily have to say the order. Sometimes you make
an order and it works, but you have to be flexible.
ARTURO MORA: Tell us about the new album: the
process, your feelings, what do you expect from it, who plays
RONI BEN-HUR: The CD actually came about thanks
to a student of mine who wanted me to do a CD and he decided
that he would produce it. Then it came down to picking the
musicians, I went back and forth and I thought different things
and I'm very, very happy with the people on the CD. I have
Ronnie Mathews on piano – Ronnie is somebody who's been
in the music for a long time, played with a lot of great musicians
–, Jeremy Pelt, he's a young trumpet player –
I think he's maybe thirty years old – and he's really
making a big splash in the United States, with a beautiful
sound and concept; the bass player is Santi DeBriano, he's
a wonderful player, yet another musician who deserves wider
recognition and also as a composer and arranger; he and I
have worked together before this recording a few times and
I fell in love with his sound; the drummer is Lewis Nash,
everybody in Jazz knows him, he's probably the most famous
Jazz drummer of the day, great drummer, wonderful, and great
sensitivity, and the percussionist is the guy who played with
me in Signatures, Steve Kroon, also a wonderful percussionist
with great sensitivity. Recording was wonderful, the process
was great, we did it in two days and they were two days of
SERGIO CABANILLAS: About your student-producer,
musicians 20,000 miles around must be green with envy…
RONI BEN-HUR: You know, there's a lot of people
who are deeply affected by the music, and they want to give
something back, and they look for ways to do it, and then
they look at the Jazz industry and it's very discouraging.
I think a lot of them go about it in the wrong way of saying
"well, let's find a label to put the CD out first",
"let's find a venue to promote the CD first", and
I think they’ll get more done if they would just say
"let's make the CD". It's important that this people
who really love the music and want to do something about the
music say: "let's just do it!", so it gets created,
like a painter: "I don't know where I'm going to put
it, I don't know what museum is going to carry it", but,
please, paint it. Same thing with musicians and then things
will fall into place.
SERGIO CABANILLAS: Some people have an idealized
image about the NYC Jazz scene, and as far as we know, things
are not that way. How do you see the NYC scene these days?
RONI BEN-HUR: It's a very, very tough scene.
You really have to want to be there, because it takes a long
time to find your place in there. Sure there are exceptions,
some people find their place immediately and become stars,
but for every one person who you hear who has great records
and they're distributed all over the world, there are a thousand
who are not. I like the story of a friend of mine, Leroy Williams,
the drummer who played with me on a few of my records, he
told me that one day he was very discouraged and he went to
see Art Blakey, and Art Blakey saw that he was discouraged,
he could feel it, and he told him "Leroy, you have to
remember why you play this music. You don't play it for fame,
you don't play it for money, you're playing it because you
love the music", and that can help in the hard times.