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Roni Ben-Hur Shares a Unique Musical Legacy on 'Stories'

Courtesy of Artist

Guitarist Roni Ben-Hur is a griot. Since moving to New York to study with Barry Harris in the mid 1980s, he has achieved a craftsmanship and artistry derived from the bebop language while also incorporating his own Middle Eastern and African influences. As a result, he's passed along a unique musical narrative to younger generations of players and audiences worldwide.

WBGO's Let Me Tell You 'Bout It w/Roni Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur's new album, Stories, chronicles the latest chapter in his approach, combining songs from his childhood with originals that address more recent social issues and the quest for freedom. To realize his vision, the guitarist chose a lineup that includes trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, drummer Victor Lewis, pianist George Cables, bassist Harvie S and vocalists Tamuz Nissim and Magos Herrera. The assembled group had never recorded together as a unit, and the resultant work was a success.

"Everybody [on the album] fit so well with each other," Ben-Hur said. "They brought a lot of love to this project and that's what made it flourish."

Under the leadership of Ben-Hur, each of the musical contributors shine brightly through the album's eight tracks, with a special attention to melodic detail. In addition to demonstrating this on the recordings, Ben-Hur also shares this lesson in person to his students — just as it was imparted to him from his key mentor, Harris.

"Sometimes beauty is expressed in two notes; sometimes beauty is a sophisticated or intricate phrase; sometimes it's just a nice bluesy, funky phrase," Ben-Hur explains. "Barry Harris told me once that he used to practice making himself cry [at the piano.] You can't make anyone feel beauty if you don't feel it first."

Like many, Ben-Hur was able to recharge during the pandemic, and his advice to others who are also navigating the uncertainty involves a mission-driven approach and determination.

"We are not going to stop playing this music, Ben-Hur says. "Throughout my career, I've seen [many changes], and yet, here I am still standing. The music is left with us and like Clark Terry said we have to 'Keep on Keeping on!'"

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.