Creative jazz festival promoters have the unique opportunity to bring together artists who have never worked together but share common ground. Such collaborations are inherently risky; still, this type of gamble can sometimes yield a festival's most memorable moments. While Canadian pianist Chris Gestrin and percussionist Dylan van der Schyff had worked together on Gestrin's Stillpoint
(Songlines, 2002) and Trio
(Maximum Jazz, 2003), neither had worked previously with Ben Monder.
Monder, based in New York, has emerged over the past fifteen years as one of the most significant guitarists of his generation, with the kind of stylistic reach that few can matchfrom the contemporary big band of Maria Schneider's award-winning Concert in the Garden and creative interpretations of classic bebop tunes in drummer Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band to his own growing body of work as a leader, including last year's remarkable Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005).
The Distance finds the trio exploring generally dark territory, finding glimpses of beauty in even the most remote corners. Gestrin and van der Schyff each contribute two compositions, although with the exception of Gestrin's title track, the line between form and freedom is considerably blurred. "Treacle, a van der Schyff piece, is reminiscent of Paul Motian's 1970s ECM dates, where the briefest melodic fragment acts as a jumping-off point for collective free play. "Treant is more about a feeling than a theme, although Gestrin and Monder briefly interact contrapuntally before opening up to further explorations of the most abstruse kind.
Gestrin's "#47 is equally oblique, with a spacious beginning leading into a series of tenebrous chordal swells from Monder. Gestrin, starting out on bells, moves to the piano and into the main theme that, with Monder's warm and clean tone, is reminiscent of John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner's infrequent collaborations. The title track is the most direct, with an ethereal lyricism that brings to mind some of Abercrombie's work with his overlooked quartet of the late 1970s.
But in many ways the free improvisations are the most magical. "Dark Engine, a Monder/van der Schyff duet, starts with strange harmonics and van der Schyff flitting about like Tony Oxley. Monder begins forming chordal and linear passagesreturning, Bill Frisell-like, to an emphasized low-end root before kicking in the overdrive and, along with van der Schyff, creating the most chaotic moments on the disc. "Extrinsic is similarly anarchistic, but with Gestrin in the pool, there's more thematic interaction. On "Voice from the Road Gestrin lays paper on the piano strings, creating a buzz-like rhythm with his left hand that allows van der Schyff more interpretive freedom, even as he builds a more distinctive melody with his right hand.
Whether or not this trio will work together again is unknown, but thanks to Tony Reif of Songlines and Vancouver International Jazz Festival artistic director Ken Pickering, the performance has been documented for all to hear. The Distance, with a clear sense of purpose, is ongoing evidence that free improvisation needn't imply lack of either direction or focus.
Visit Ben Monder and Chris Gestrin on the web.
Personnel: Chris Gestrin: piano, prepared piano, bells; Ben Monder: electric guitar; Dylan van der Schyff: drums, percussion.