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Gene Bertoncini & Roni Ben-Hur: Jazz Therapy Vol. 1

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Had things gone as planned, this warm and delightfully woven collection of duets would have found guitarist Roni Ben-Hur teamed with bassist Earl May. But following May’s sudden death early last year, guitarist Gene Bertoncini offered his services, contributing to a series of deftly executed performances dedicated to May.

There’s no confusing the two guitarists-Bertoncini plays a nylon string acoustic; Ben-Hur, an amplified arch-top-just as there’s no mistaking the ease with which these musicians trade solo and supporting roles, or weave contrapuntal lines that add welcome sparks to a 10-track collection largely devoted to pop standards. The album’s title track, a performance inspired by May’s beaming countenance, is typical of the ballads, tenderly suited to the duo’s keen sense of lyricism and dynamics. By contrast, “That’s Earl, Brother,” drawn from Dizzy Gillespie’s songbook, derives its charm from a vibrant confluence of bop and blues. The original pieces hold rewards, too. Ben-Hur’s “Sofia’s Butterfly” isn’t nearly as romantic as its title suggests, with its crisp single-note lines and fat, clipped chords. At once evocative and inventive, Bertoncini’s “Set Blue” slyly reconfigures Toots Thielemans’ “Bluesette.”

And talk about a win-win situation: Besides providing a chance to hear Bertoncini and Ben-Hur collaborate in an intimate setting, Smile offers listeners an additional incentive. Proceeds from sales of the CD will benefit the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in Englewood, N.J., which has provided free care for jazz musicians in need since 1993.