Gene Bertoncini & Roni Ben-Hur – Smile – Motema Music MTM-00018, 48:30 ****:
(Gene Bertoncini – guitars; Roni Ben-Hur – guitars)
In 2007, guitarist Roni Ben-Hur was planning to record an album with friend and bassist, Earl May. The purpose of this venture was to raise money for the the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund at the Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey. Unfortunately, the sudden passing of May extended a shadow over this project. Gene Bertoncini, an established jazz acoustic guitar player, stepped in to rescue the venture. Ben-Hur, a modernist, originally from Israel, has become a respected artist on the music scene since his arrival in 1985. His credits include sessions with Jimmy Heath, Walter Booker, Charles McPherson, and a host of others. He has recorded five solo albums. Bertoncini, a master of the acoustic guitar, has worked with Tony Bennett Clark Terry, Paul Desmond, Hubert Laws, Wayne Shorter and the Tonight Show Orchestra. His versatile skills allow him to engage in a wide variety of musical endeavors.
Smile is the first release by Motema Music in the Jazz Therapy Series (whose proceeds benefit various jazz foundations.). The counterpoint of electric (Ben-Hur) and acoustic guitar (Bertoncini) presents an interesting contrast in styles. The opening track is an inspired rendition of the Roberta Flack hit, “Killing Me Softly”. Bertoncici deftly uses chord variations in exploring the delicate melody. Ben-Hur joins on the chorus in subtle complement. Both artists are capable of dual leads, alternating solos and providing rhythmic backup with graceful aplomb. The title cut features lead electric lines, elegantly framed by acoustic rhythm. First heard in the 1936 Chaplin movie, Modern Times, “Smile” continues to be a favorite among jazz practitioners. Romantic standards, “I Concentrate On You” and “Besame Mucho”, flow with Brazilian grace as the two guitarists demonstrate chemistry in an understated fashion.
There is no shortage of resourceful arrangements. “Out Of This World”, a lesser known Harold Arlen piece, alternates quiet moodiness with swing and bossa nova breaks. A quicker pace infuses Dizzy Gillespie’s “That’s Earl Brother” with vitality. “Set Blue” a Bertoncini composition influenced by Bluesette (Toots Thieleman), is another example of the shared creativity of the duo. Each artist contributes new material to the album that fits the relaxed, felicitous theme of this collaboration.
Jazz Therapy Volume One represents an auspicious introduction to a worthwhile cause.
TrackList: Killing Me Softly; I Concentrate On You; Smile; That’s Earl, Brother; You Are A Story; Anna’s Dance; Out Of This World; Besame Mucho; Sofia’s Butterfly; Set Blue
— Robbie Gerson