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Ben Monder: Ben Monder: Amorphae


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Having made his first—and, up to now, only—appearance on Munich's lauded ECM Records on the late drummer Paul Motian's Garden of Eden (2006), it's certainly taken a long time for the virtuosically talented guitarist to get a date of his own. Monder's résumé—while filled with significant associations including, in addition to Motian, composer/bandleader Maria Schneider, double bassist and occasional ECM label mate Marc Johnson, saxophonist Donny McCaslin (with whom Monder will also appear on the upcoming Black Star by David Bowie) and drummer/composer John Hollenbeck—has always been a little shy on recordings under his own name, but for his ECM leader debut he takes a complete left turn from more rigorously composed, band-centric albums like Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005) and Hydra (Sunnyside, 2013). Instead, with Amorphae, he delivers an album of almost entirely improvised music, and of a far more atmospheric nature than those that came before.

The two solo guitar improvs that bookend Amorphae—the aptly titled "Tendrils," with its reverb-drenched linear phrases expanding well, like tendrils, out of oblique, volume-swelled chords; and the more celestial "Dinosaur Skies," where volume pedal and digital delay create a real-time layering of notes, phrases and chords that allow harmonic overtones to build into dense clouds of soft, cushiony sound that gradually turn darker and more angular—are something of a shift from the technique-driven (but never for the sake of it) approach that has garnered Monder such a strong reputation, especially amongst guitarists. Neither track—nor any of Amorphae's eight pieces, for that matter—approach the kind of relentless fingerpicking that defined, for example, a stunning but exhausting half-hour solo performance on the second evening of Ottawa, Canada's GuitarNow! workshop weekend in 2013.

Amorphae, while perhaps uncharacteristic when taken as a part of the guitarist's overall discography as a leader, is still unrepentantly Monder. His approach may be clearly post-Bill Frisellian in nature but, during the course of his 25-year career, Monder has taken that significant touchstone of volume pedal, delay and open-note, suspended chordal development and built it into something distinctly his own: something often (and appropriately) considered more cerebral than Frisell, but still possessed of its own heart, its own emotional center.

Amorphae began as a duo recording with Motian in the fall of 2010, where "Dinosaur Skies" was also recorded, but the drummer's passing the following year forced Monder to look elsewhere for a similarly disposed player. Enter Andrew Cyrille, on sessions that resumed a little over three years later; a completely different drummer, to be sure, yet one whose more avant-leanings nevertheless share a connective thread when it comes to Motian's renowned ability as a colorist. While both drummers possess no shortage of traditional skills, they are more predicated, here, on all things implicit.

There may be but two tracks with Motian, but they manage, once again, to render the drummer sorely missed. The brief "Triffids" finds Motian flitting in and around Monder's swelled chords and softly abstruse melodies. By contrast, the only preconceived piece on the album—a dark-hued and heavily improvised look at Rodgers & Hammerstein's oft-covered "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning"—may be more extreme both in density and dynamics, as the guitarist adds overdrive partway through to create thick dissonances as Motian responds with characteristically astute, in-the-moment textural parallels and contrasts; still, Monder manages to re-harmonize the familiar melody and allow at least some sunlight to shine through.

The rest of the recording is similarly ambient, comparatively spare and indigo-hazed. Monder introduces, on record, two instruments to augment his longstanding Ibanez hollow-bodied electric guitar: a baritone electric guitar tuned a fifth below normal guitar range; and a Fender Bass VI, a six-string electric bass tuned a full octave down, more often used by bassists, including Soft Machine's Roy Babbington, Cream's Jack Bruce and The Band's Rick Danko to expand their reach into upper registers.

Monder, by contrast, uses both instruments to extend his reach downwards: "Tumid Cenobite," a duo with Cyrille, possesses some of Amorphae's most beautiful, lyrical moments, its improvised nature belying a seemingly compositional intent as Monder moves from fuller, richer chords on his baritone electric to rapidly finger-picked playing that also turns the piece into one of the album's most overtly virtuosic. "Gamma Crucis" introduces both the Fender VI and Amorphae's third participant, keyboardist Pete Rende—better-known as a recording engineer but one who has also racked up player appearances including albums by singer Rebecca Martin and saxophonist Jeremy Udden)—here and on the following "Zythum" (both trio tracks with Cyrille), contributing subtle synthesizer shadings.

Looking at the track listing, there appears to be a clear inner logic that places Amorphae into the ECM aesthetic of shaping albums best absorbed in their entirety rather than as collections of discrete pieces, despite being neither produced nor mixed by label head Manfred Eicher. Monder first shifts from guitar to baritone or bass guitar, also moving from solo to duo to trio, only to then return to guitar, back to duo and, finally, solo on the closing "Dinosaur Skies." On an album predicated on subtler stuff, it's a similarly stealthy approach to giving Amorphae its shape as a 45-minute narrative.

Produced by Sun Chung—who also produced pianist Aaron Parks wonderful solo piano date for ECM, 2013's Arborescence—it's perhaps most remarkable how Amorphae (and Parks' leader debut) does seem to effortlessly fit within the label's purview. ECM may have begun as (and continues to be) Manfred Eicher's vision. What is becoming clear, at least to some extent however, with recordings like Amorphae and guitarist David Torn's recent outstanding solo date, only sky (ECM, 2015)—produced by Torn but, unlike Amorphae, executive produced by Eicher—is that the ECM label head's vision has become clear enough to be assumed, at least to some degree, by others...although using the word "replacing" would be absolutely and utterly incorrect. There may be an ECM aesthetic—though one of subtler definition than the mythology that has built up around the label over the past 46 years—but there is still only one Manfred Eicher.

Despite coming from two very different guitarists, only sky does intersect with Amorphae on at least a couple of sonic points, in addition to both being completely improvised and largely unedited. But while only sky seemed to be an inevitable destination for Torn, Amorphae comes as more of a complete surprise from Monder. Still, going back to his previous solo recordings, it's clearer than might first appear that Monder, if not previously disposed to such a record, was, at the very least, completely prepared for a dark but engagingly spontaneous recording like Amorphae—an album that may signal a directional shift for the guitarist, but one which in no way predetermines what he will do next. And that's as predictable as Monder gets.

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