Saturday, March 21, 2015

Benny Sharoni - "Slant Signature"

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Over the years, I have heard many of my sax playing friends talking about “Otto Link” mouthpieces the same way that drummers talk about various, revered drumsticks models and sizes. “Overheard” might be a better way to describe it because I didn’t really understand what these reed players were talking about. These conversations were always characterized by a passion for the particular “Otto Link mouthpiece” in question and why it was so much better suited to the needs of a particular player.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a copy of Benny Sharoni’s new CD arrived entitled - Slant Signature - which was also the name of one of the most-prized versions of  Otto Link’s mouthpieces, arrived in the mail! I hadn’t heard the name of the mouthpiece referenced in years and here it was coming back at me as a CD title. Small world.

The title of Benny’s new CD along with the music on it brought back a lot of memories - all of them pleasant.

The source of these fond recollections begins with Benny selection of three Jazz Standards that have always been among my favorites: Lee Morgan’s Ceora, Ray Bryant’s Tonk and Freddie Hubbard’s Down Under. I wonder if Jim Rotondi’s presence on the recording had anything to do with the choice of the Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard tunes.? I mean, the word has been out for some time that Jim is a big fan of Freddie’s playing [major understatement].

While on the subject of Jim, his playing has matured to the point that it exhibits so much more authority and forcefulness on this recording, let alone, much more use of the middle and lower registers of the horn. Benny made a great choice in selecting Jim as his front line mate for these dates as Rotondi compliments and complements him beautifully throughout.

Another source for pleasant reminders are the piano solos of Joe Barbato because the guy really knows what a “swinging eight note means” let alone how to swing one. Thoughts of Phineas Newborn, Jr., Gene Harris and Victor Feldman, among many other “swinging” pianists, are conjured up when Joe digs in. He comes at you hard and with a take-no-prisoners approach in his solos. Just a delight to hear that this style of piano Jazz is “alive and well” thanks to Joe’s superb touch.

Bassist Chuck Israels talks about the “wedding bells” that he likes to hear when his bass lines mesh with a drummer’s cymbal beat and that certainly happens when Todd Baker’s big, full bass sound interlocks with drummer Steve Langone’s clicking cymbal beat on Slant Signature. The two really interlace throughout the CD, power the pulse of the music with impeccably solid time and just lift it with a swinging precision that brought back memories of Ray Brown with Ed Thigpen in Oscar Peterson’s trio, or Israel Crosby and Vernel Crosby with both the Ahmad Jamal Trio and the George Shearing Quintet and of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones with the classic Miles Davis Quintet and Sextet. When Joe Barbato joins in with his sensitive comping, it become a rhythm section that provides Benny, Freddie, Joe with the freedom to soar, take risks and seek new directions.

And, if I was asked to find a single phrase that describes the memories that coming flooding back when I listen to Benny Sharoni’s tenor saxophone on Slant Signatures, it would be just that - Benny seeks new directions.

Of course, there are influences: to my ears, memories of - Wayne Shorter, George Coleman, Hank Mobley - those with a softer, lighter, more fluid approach to the tenor [I also hear a little Benny Golson].

But it is the way that Benny puts his ideas together that stand out on this recording. This is not a mere imitator; Benny is trying to achieve his own voice by bringing a fresh approach to the way in which he constructs his improvised lines.

He doesn’t always make it, but he is a risk taker and the reward, when it does work, is something new and different.

While the Jazz Life is not always an easy one in terms of longevity and there is no guarantee of success, hopefully, Benny will continue to grow and develop because I think he has the potential to be a major voice in the making.

Another aspect of his originality is reflected in the five compositions that Benny penned for the date. These are interesting in conception, sound like fun to play on and provide another vehicle for Benny to more fully express his musical personality.

Ann Braithwaite and her fine team at Braithwaite & Katz sent along the following news release about the Slant Signature CD which was released on March 17, 2015.

“Benny Sharoni, a take-charge tenor saxophonist with a powerful tone reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, unites a deep respect for the jazz masters of the past with a keen imagination all his own. Slant Signature, Sharoni's second CD, is a purposeful statement from a constantly searching artist, an inspired outing that takes the reedman's soulful, sophisticated brand of jazz to new heights.

Sharoni honed his sound like the greats of old: on the bandstand and on his own terms. The consistent hallmark of Sharoni's playing is the deep warmth and beauty of his tone and his lyrical phrasing." A close friend said that I always go for the pretty notes," he says. "Of course, everyone has a different idea about what a pretty note is."

Sharoni's playing isn't the only focus of Slant Signature. He's accompanied by his longtime quartet featuring pianist Joe Barbato, bassist Todd Baker, and drummer Steve Langone, plus special guests trumpeter Jim Rotondi and guitarist Mike Mele. The band reinforces the music's immediacy and beauty, drawing in listeners with a profound joie de vivre while tackling Sharoni's five tangy originals. They also put their distinctive stamp on the Lee Morgan classic "Ceora," Freddie Hubbard's "Down Under" and Ray Bryant's "Tonk." "They have musical instincts that reflect my own sensibilities" Sharoni says. "That's huge."

It's been several years since Sharoni's debut CD, Eternal Elixir (2010, Papaya), garnered rave reviews. Yet these have not been idle years for the Boston-area composer-saxophonist. "A jazz musician never feels like he's mastered anything," Sharoni says, "but I felt like over the last five years of hard work, exploration and composing that the time was right to embark on this project. This album is a great milestone for me. I feel like I'm at my next level of freedom and creativity."

It's always been an unlikely route for Sharoni, the Israeli-born son of Chilean and Yemeni immigrants, but he's forged his own path successfully. He enrolled at Berklee College but left after one semester, too free-spirited to thrive while there. He continued his jazz education, studying privately with Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone, playing gigs with the likes of Joshua Redman, Danilo Perez, Kenny Garrett and Larry Coryell, imbibing influences and carving out his own sound.

His playing can be gruff and virile, as it is on "Subterranean Samba." He can also play a melody with a gentle caress, as he does on Lee Morgan's "Ceora." The sensual appeal of his sound is matched by a searching intelligence, so that his music is always smart and emotionally honest without being pretentious. Listen to "Bitter Drops" to hear how Sharoni's burly sound anchors his probing lines in a bedrock of blues. On "Slant Signature," he sounds relaxed and in control as his elegant phrases flow smoothly over the galloping tempo. And there's a compelling logic to his solos on "Minor City" and "The Bodega" that grabs listeners and takes them along for the ride.

The band, too, fits Sharoni's vision with a deep intuitive level of communication and solos at once relaxed, yet urgent and focused. "Subterranean Samba" and "The Bodega" are good places to hear how tight the band is, how readily they lock into a groove, and how well they support each other. Pianist Joe Barbato mines the New Orleans piano tradition for a rhythmic, bluesy solo on "Bitter Drops" and gets down to some serious gospel soul jazz testifying on Ray Bryant's "Tonk." Bassist Todd Baker lays down a rock solid foundation for the band, no matter whether the music is unfolding with blistering energy in "Minor City" or at the leisurely tempo of "Ceora." Drummer Steve Langone is a model of versatility, handling Brazilian, New Orleans, Latin, and swinging jazz rhythms with equal finesse.

Even trumpeter Jim Rotondi, who is playing with Sharoni for the first time, sounds like a regular band member on "Tonk," "Down Under," and "The Bodega," on which his tasteful melodicism and swing find a welcoming home. The album's other special guest, guitarist Mike Mele, who also appeared on Sharoni's acclaimed first album, provides a title track highlight in a solo that nicely balances long, flowing bop lines and blues inflections.

Born and raised in Israel on a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip, Benny Sharoni grew up in a home full of music. His multiethnic ancestry meant Sharoni heard music from his parents' respective homelands of Chile and Yemen as a child. As a teenager, he studied classical flute, but fell in love with jazz when he heard Sonny Rollins. In 1986, after a traumatic stint in the Israeli army, Sharoni moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. He soon began leading his own bands and has appeared with Joshua Redman, Danilo Perez, Kenny Garrett, and Larry Coryell. He now performs and tours regularly with his band throughout the East Coast, Canada, Europe and Asia. Eternal Elixir, Sharoni's first CD as leader, "mixes the vitality of a spiritual journey with the intelligence of an academic lesson, to come up with an intoxicating cocktail of brains and brawn," according to Jordan Richardson in All About Jazz.

For Sharoni, the bottom line is that the music moves and inspires people. "This record is 99 percent heart," he says. "The band is so full of heart and joy and intensity and everybody's mission was make the most beautiful music they could."”

Benny’s music is available through Amazon, iTunes and via his website at

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