Gene Bertoncini & Roni Ben-Hur: Good Music, Great Cause

“Jazz Therapy” is the name given to a new series of recordings by major artists who are donating their talent and time to a great cause: All the proceeds from sales of the CDs go to support the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund of the Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey.

The fund is affiliated with the Jazz Foundation of America, an organization on the front lines of providing help to needy jazz and blues musicians. The foundation enables free medical care, prevents homelessness and eviction by paying rents and mortgages, and organizes gigs to help musicians earn money from their art; since Hurricane Katrina, the foundation reportedly has helped more than 4,000 musicians and created gigs for another 1,000.

So, it’s a great cause.

And if Smile, the just-released first volume in the series,  is any indication , the music is offering its own brand of healing.

The project, a collaboration between veteran guitarist Gene Bertoncini and younger established six-stringer Roni Ben-Hur, is a joyful outing, with the two turning in imaginative renditions of a half-dozen standards and pop tunes, plus two originals by each musician.

Bertoncini, on nylon-string acoustic, and Ben-Hur, on electric, trade melodies, counterlines, comping, and solos, turning in sublime acoustic-electric textures, sans rhythm section. It comes off as a mutual-admiration society that sounds like … more is in order.

“Smile,” written by Charlie Chaplin (and recorded by Nat Cole), has always struck me as a gorgeous song that ought to be included in the repertoire of more jazz artists. Here it’s rendered beautifully, with the two variously bringing out the poignancy of the melody and trading solos.

The two achieve a similarly sense of melancholy on a creative redesign of Roberta Flack hit “Killing Me Softly,” which opens with a tricky prelude — all tightly clustered chords, major/minor tonalities, and long descending lines –before getting into the song proper.

“Besame Mucho” is done in a slow, languid, tropical-sunset  style, replete with bossa nova rhythms, while the Gershwins’ “I Concentrate on You” is similarly gorgeous.

The originals are impressive, too. Bertoncini’s “You Are a Story” is a quite pretty ballad, while his “Set Blue” is a take-off on jazz familiarity “Bluesette,” albeit built on alternate blues changes and capped with a counterpoint section and extended vamping. Ben-Hur contributes the charming tristeza “Anna’s Dance” (title track from his 2001 album) and bluesy bop piece “Sofia’s Butterfly.”

Smile, as promised, makes for great therapy; here’s to new sessions with the same musical physicians.

Side note: I had the opportunity to hear Ben-Hur when our paths crossed in 2007 during the 20th and final edition (what a shame) of the Child of the Sun Jazz Festival at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Fla. – yes, my hometown. He led a  group that also included trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and bassist Santi Debriano. Debriano, a great New York player best known for his work on Latin jazz projects, wound up using my upright bass – a century-old Edmund Paulus, from Austria, I think – on the gig.