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Ben Monder: Surprise from Cohesion

By Published: February 6, 2006
AAJ: So instead you started with a jaunty hit-single grabber like "Still Motion ?

BM: [laughing] Exactly. I think it was good advice. It is a better sequence that way.

AAJ: I also like the overall sound of the record.

BM: Analog tape. It might be the last record to come out on analog! Definitely the last one I'm going to do. It's expensive, and it's so much easier just to go into the computer, much as I'd rather not. I mean, we weren't splicing tape or anything, but even so—just running it into the machine to do it is hard. But I do love the sound of tape.

AAJ: Are you playing guitar through one amp on this CD?

BM: No, they're all two amps. I'm going stereo on every tune. And the amps are different—there's a different pair of amps for just about every tune. I normally use a Music Man and a souped-up [Fender] Princeton, and that's what I brought. I think my Music Man was broken, and the studio where we recorded had a bunch of really nice vintage amps, so I was trying different things. For a couple of tunes, I had a big old Marshall—not a stack, but a Marshall combo amp, which sounded good.

AAJ: "Rooms of Light ?

BM: Yeah. And "Spectre, also—that was that and the Princeton. And then "Echolalia was a Princeton and a [Fender] Bassman. I used my two amps on "Oceana. On "Double Sun I used a Princeton and a really fantastic old [Fender] Deluxe that [bassist] Tony Scherr had lent me. I kind of wished I'd used it on the whole record, but it was the last piece I did, so I didn't know.

AAJ: Since we're already wallowing in gear talk, what kind of guitars do you play?

BM: The electric is an Ibanez AS50. The acoustic is an old Martin from 1936; it's one of those small ones—I can't remember, D-something. Whatever the small one is.

AAJ: Those are your two standard guitars?

BM: That's pretty much it. I own a Strat that I take out about once every two years.

AAJ: Whether you're improvising or composing, there's a great thematic unity in construction. Geoff Young told me that he would ask you...

BM: Geoff Young, the guitarist from Canada?

AAJ: Yeah. He said he'd ask how you "develop such a powerful sense of musical architecture in your improvisations and compositions.

BM: Well, if I answered that, it would sort of legitimize the question, which I couldn't possibly do.

AAJ: Let me rephrase it, since the question makes you so uncomfortable. Why are you so great?

BM: [Laughing] Oh, where could I start?

AAJ: Okay, let me put it this way: do you think thematically in your playing?

BM: Yeah. I do. I think it was instilled in me a long time ago by a teacher I had named Irwin Stahl, who I probably don't mention nearly enough, but people don't really ask me, either. He loved really thematic improvisers; he didn't tolerate waste or notes that didn't mean anything. Notes played just for effect, or to impress. He came out of a classical background. So having that influence at an early age, and also being interested in classical music and enjoying listening to a thought process unfold over time—all contributed to that aspect.

My favorite improvisers to listen to are the ones who explore new territory in a logical way, where something unfolds and is surprising and inevitable at the same time. Jim Hall was a big influence for me. And Wayne Shorter has improvised like that as well.

AAJ: Any other big musical influences, in or outside of jazz?

BM: Going way back, the Beatles. All the stuff that was on the radio in the seventies. John Coltrane was a huge influence; I'd just spend a week or two listening to nothing but 'Trane bootlegs that I would get from friends—I'd try to play along with them. A lot of twentieth-century composers. Probably the first I got into was Bartók. More recently, composers like [Elliott] Carter, [Gyorgy] Ligeti, [Milton] Babbitt. I mentioned Morton Feldman.

AAJ: Someone told me you were into [Brazilian multi-instrumentalist/composer] Egberto Gismonti.

BM: Oh, yeah. I went through a big Egberto phase in the eighties. I think if there's an influence to some of the solo things I write, it's probably his influence, at least unconsciously. He's a pretty astounding musician.

AAJ: What are you going to do in 2006?

BM: I'd like to pursue the trio that I mentioned a little bit more—write music geared a little bit more towards that. Maybe start up the quartet again at some point. The thing is that I just kind of started writing a little bit—I've been on the road with Maria Schneider, and that's where I started writing. I started writing in hotel rooms and airport gates [laughing]. So that's the first stuff I've actually written for probably over a year and it seems like stuff I'll have to do with the quartet, so I guess I'll have to revive it. I don't seem to be hearing anything else. But I would like do more with the trio and generally do more of my own stuff—more gigs as a leader.

AAJ: It's got to be challenging for you. It's nice to be in demand as a sideman, but it takes up time and energy.

BM: Yeah, it does. I could try to make a commitment to not take certain gigs, but it's hard—when something comes up and you have a hole in your schedule, it's kind of counterintuitive to say no and not do it just in case I can get some gigs. I don't know quite how to handle that yet.

Selected Discography

Paul Motian Band, Garden of Eden (ECM, 2006)
Chris Gestrin/Ben Monder/Dylan van der Schyff, The Distance (Songlines, 2006)
Ben Monder, Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005)
Guillermo Klein, Live in Barcelona (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2005)
Rebecca Martin, People Behave Like Ballads (MaxJazz, 2004)
Maria Schneider Orchestra, Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004)
John O'Gallagher, Abacus (Arabesque, 2004)
Josh Roseman Unit, Treats for the Nightwalker (Enja, 2003)
Guillermo Klein, Los Gauchos III (Sunnyside, 2003)
Miguel Zenon, Looking Forward (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2002)
Paul Motian/Electric Bebop Band, Holiday for Strings (Winter & Winter, 2002)
Theo Bleckmann, Origami (Songlines, 2001)
John Hollenbeck, No Images (CRI, 2001)
Charles Pillow, In This World (Summit, 2001)
Paul Motian/Electric Bebop Band, Europe (Winter & Winter, 2001)
Ben Monder, Excavation (Arabesque, 2000)
Donny McCaslin, Seen from Above (Arabesque, 2000)
Maria Schneider Orchestra, Alegresse (Enja, 2000)
Bill McHenry, Graphic (Fresh Sound New Talent, 1999)
Dave's True Story, Sex Without Bodies (Chesky, 1998)
Jochen Ruckert, Introduction (Jazzline, 1998)
Drew Gress' Jagged Sky, Heyday (Soul Note, 1998)
Chris Cheek, A Girl Named Joe (Fresh Sound New Talent, 1998)
Theo Bleckmann/Ben Monder, No Boat (Songlines, 1997)
Ben Monder, Flux (Songlines, 1997)
Ben Monder, Dust (Arabesque, 1997)
Chris Dahlgren, Slow Commotion (Koch, 1996)
David Binney, Luxury of Guessing (Audioquest, 1995)
Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Coming About (Enja, 1995)
Marc Johnson, Right Brain Patrol (JMT, 1993)
Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Evanescence (Enja, 1992)

Related Article:
A Look into the World of Ben Monder (2002)

Photo Credits:
Top: C. Andrew Hovan
Center: Rick Herter

Bottom: Ralph Gibson

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