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.
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 sophisticated.
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 Jazz idiom?
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 level.
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 help.
SERGIO CABANILLAS: How do you feel about John Hicks’ loss?
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 you musically?
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 of teaching?
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 Jazz scene?
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 ourselves… [laughs]
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 in it…
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 joy.
SERGIO CABANILLAS: About your student-producer, musicians 20,000 miles around must be green with envy… [laughs]
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.