There’s something refreshingly unhurried about how the program of music unfolds on Stories, the latest collection of original compositions and creative arrangements of others’ tunes from Roni Ben-Hur. In keeping with the album’s theme, the varied tunes here point to the true-life tale of the guitarist’s long and impressive career, from his origins as the youngest of seven children from a small desert town in his native Israel to his 1985 arrival in New York City and his subsequent 35-plus years’ work as a front-rank performer and dedicated jazz educator. And, on another level, many of the solos here—by Ben-Hur, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist George Cables, and bassist Harvie S—benefit from a distinctive storytelling quality.
The leader points to his cultural heritage with three pieces, starting with opener “La Serena,” a haunting Sephardic folk song sung in the ancient Jewish Ladino dialect by Magos Herrera. Its melody is followed by the first of Ben-Hur’s many searching, fleet-fingered improvisations and typically brash, inventive solos by Jensen and Cables. “Ha’omnam,” sung by Tamuz Nissim and built on lyrics by Hebrew-language poet Leah Goldberg, thrives on a lilting theme, a rolling bossa groove and flickering guitar, and “A Redoblar,” also sung by Herrera, draws from Victor Lewis’ understated propulsion, a melodic six-string turn, and an extended romp by Jensen.
Ben-Hur contributes two originals: pretty ballad “But I Had to Say Goodbye,” a well-appointed quartet piece offering the guitarist and Cables much room to shine, and “Ma’of,” a tune with a sprinting melody penned for its writer’s two daughters. Muted trumpet limns John Hicks’ ballad “After the Morning.” And Cables’ closing “Melodious Funk” is a Monk-inspired gem with a descending head, quirky twists, and appropriately against-the-grain piano, trumpet, guitar, and bass solos. It makes the perfect nightcap for this set of uniformly engaging stories.