Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Benny Sharoni's Latest CD Slant Signature Showcases the Masterful Tenor Saxophonist's Brilliance

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."


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