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Ben Monder: Le Monde du Monder


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I think it's hard for an individual to categorize his own work. I value composition as a means of expression, but I feel improvisation, both free and structured, is equally important. I wouldn't feel complete without both.
With a fittingly well-documented career, boasting a range of stunning appearances on over 50 recordings, including 14 since the year 2000, Ben Monder has solidified his position as one of the finest players of his generation.

A chordal and textural master, unafraid to thoroughly explore advanced harmonic concepts, Ben's appearance on a sideman date is sure to elevate his band mates' game, in virtually any numerical or idiomatic configuration. Compositionally, he is also at the forefront, constructing many tunes that include several movements and incorporating healthy dose of 12-tone concept.

Ben's also recently been drafted into Paul Motian's electric bebop band, and with Steve Cardenas, fills the guitar chairs vacated most recently by Brad Shepik and Kurt Rosenwinkel. An investigation of Mr. Motian's back catalog will indicate he has a nice ear for guitar players, no doubt. There's a lot of activity spinning around Ben's thing nowadays, but I get the feeling his star is still on the rise. See how you feel after checking out his trading of eights with AAJ.

All About Jazz: How old are you and where did you grow up?

Ben Monder: I'm 39 and grew up in Westchester (NY).

AAJ: How did you get into music?

BM: My father played the violin and was an avid classical music listener, although he was a scientist by profession. So I started on violin, but after realizing how uncomfortable I was, switched to guitar. Actually, my violin teacher refused me further instruction after I told him I would rather play baseball on Saturday mornings than play in his youth orchestra. And my mother had a nylon string guitar lying around the house, so the switch was natural.

AAJ: Who were your influences, as a musician, and more specifically, on guitar as you began, and then, as you started to mature musically?

BM: Before I started playing anything, I listened to a lot of Beatles. They really blew me away, even as a little kid. Also, there were some records around the house, like the soundtrack to some James Bond movies and the 2001 soundtrack, which is still a favorite. Then Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and all the rock that was on the radio in the 70's. As far as jazz guitar, I've had some of the most rewarding experiences listening to Jim Hall, so I'd have to count him as my main influence. Also, my first guitar teacher was the great guitarist John Stowell. I'll never forget walking into a lesson and seeing him playing all these mysterious shapes and sounds, that I didn't know were possible, or even permissible. I remember being really fascinated by that. There are other isolated events that I think were influential. When I was 16, I went to this 7- week sort of "jazz camp" at Berklee. There was a guy there named Lorn Leber who absolutely blew everyone away. He had a linear concept that was unlike anything I had ever heard. I think he was 19 at the time. I also heard someone there play a solo guitar piece someone had written for him, which I remember being really beautiful. So somewhere, I think I'm still trying to emulate some of these early experiences. I guess an interesting question is, do the things we're exposed to determine our direction, or do we select which experiences will have an impact depending on our nature? Anyway, these days I'm probably influenced as much by my peers, the people I play with, as anything else. I also shouldn't discount all the classical music I've digested over the years—it's probably had a lot to do with shaping how I hear things.

AAJ: Tell us about those periods of what you feel, were of most intense growth as a musician.

BM: I don't know if I can identify anything like that. It's a slow, steady,...well, slow anyway, process. Around 1987 I had a regular gig at the club "Augies" in New York, and I feel like that helped my playing a lot. Before that, I spent a few months playing with Jack McDuff, and that helped show me a lot of my weaknesses. It was also while riding in Jack's truck, going God knows where, that I had something of an epiphany. I remember listening to an Egberto Gismonti (another big influence) record on my walkman when it occurred to me that sound was everything. It's a deceptively obvious idea, but the entirety of what one communicates in music is "contained" in sound, and I think one's relationship to sound determines the quality of that communication.

Also, when I finally got the courage to finish a batch of tunes and make a demo tape, that was a big breakthrough for me.

AAJ: To my mind, you are an absolute musical genius. You're obviously quite comfortable with the intricacies of music theory and its application to improvisation and composition. How did you acquire your mind-boggling skills?

BM: To answer this question is to acknowledge its validity, which makes me a little uncomfortable. But let's just say I practiced a lot.

AAJ: You are an absolutely incredible single note soloist, but your chordal work is just so advanced, so complete, so cutting edge, it almost overshadows that aspect (the single note lines) of your playing.

BM: Yeah, maybe I play too many chords.

AAJ: How did you come to be such a chord completist? Practice, right?

BM: I don't really feel my chord work is so well developed, especially if you think about players like Ed Bickert and George Van Eps, but I'm working on it. Anyway, I'm just coming up with ways to realize the sounds I'm hearing, and exploring harmony is a big part of that. I've spent a lot of time inventing chordal and voice leading exercises for myself, in the hope that it would lead me to be able to improvise the kinds of sounds I'm drawn to. Also, I'm trying to exploit the guitar's full potential, because, for me, it makes for the most interesting music.

AAJ: You seem to be able to play absolutely anything on guitar. From the atmospheric/ECM style, to straight bop, to Frisell-type wall of sound, to almost a modern classical approach. How did you evolve into such an "all-around" stylist?

BM: I dunno...

AAJ: OK... I'll stop with the superlatives. What were the earliest recording or gigging projects you did? Did you start off as a "jazz" guy?

BM: The first band I really started working with regularly was a kind of R&B/Funk band. After that I did a lot of club dates (weddings). Doing jazz and original music full time came later.

AAJ: Besides your own stuff and the stuff with Theo Bleckmann, you've done a LOT of work as a "sideman." My first familiarity with you is as a member of Marc Johnson's Right Brain Patrol. Was that your first commercially released recording? Try to explain the evolution of your recorded career.

BM: Yes, that Marc Johnson date was actually the first CD I ever did. I used a borrowed amp and I was just figuring out how to use my new volume pedal. It was a great experience, though—a real collective project.

AAJ: I mean, you've recorded with Maria Schneider, Charles Pillow, Tim Ries, Guillermo Klein, David Binney, Steve Johns and Peter Brainin, Fundamentia, Drew Gress, Chris Dahlgren, Dan Willis, Jon Gordon, Dave Pietro, Michael Leonhart and the incredible Paul Motian. Is there some kind of natural order to how these dates fell in place?

BM: Not really. They called—I showed up.

AAJ: Who else have you gigged with, besides the folks you've recorded with? I know you've worked with Josh Roseman. I'm sure there's a laundry list. Any more notable types I've left out?

BM: I did a few gigs with Lee Konitz and Matt Wilson a few years ago. We just played free and went in and out of standards. It was a lot of fun. Except for one panicked moment when Lee started playing "Skylark" in G flat. Also, I love playing in Bill McHenry's band and Reid Anderson's band. I used to play in composer/saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli's band. He has the (justified) reputation of writing some of the hardest music on the planet. We would rehearse a piece for a year before it was ready to be performed. Come to think of it, maybe it never was ready...There are actually two discs documenting that work, if you're interested.

AAJ: Actually, Ben I have Explosion the first, but not Expansion, the second. Challenging, incredible stuff in my opinion. Please comment on my thoughts on some of some other incredible performances. Chris Dahlgren "Slow Commotion" is my favorite performance of yours as a "sideman." Just total abandonment in places, emphasizing your wilder side and a real sense of surprise.

BM: All I remember about that date was that it was in this big barn- like studio in upstate New York. It was late November and there was NO HEAT. I remember being in there at 1 AM and everyone is playing with his overcoat on. Maybe what you're hearing is some of that misery.

AAJ: Heyday ,Drew Gress. The performance, other than your own or Theo's stuff, that sounds most like a "band." Was that a working unit, or just a recording date, or both.

BM: Yeah, that was (is?) a band. We had been together for a few years and done quite a few gigs by then. And Drew's music is very involved, so it takes some experience to get it sounding fluid and musical.

AAJ: "Fundamentia," your "easy-listening" side. People should hear this if they don't "hear" you as a single note guy. Some beautiful, lyrical lines on this one. This band should be more "popular" Thanks for indulging me. I won't go on, although I could. What of the "sideman" stuff are you most proud of?

BM: I thought you weren't going to go on.

AAJ: What recording projects stand out most for you as positive experiences?

BM: In addition to the things you've mentioned, I like the Chris Cheek record, A Girl Named Joe. I think I take my best recorded solo, for what it's worth, on the title cut. I like Reid Anderson's The Vastness of Space. And I've done a few records for the Basque singer/songwriter Ruper Ordorika. Those are a lot of fun because, being a rock record, I get a chance to really shape and layer my parts. It's a completely different process than a jazz record, and very rewarding.

AAJ: Tell us about the electric Bebop band and the compositional process there.

BM: People bring in tunes and we play them. Paul usually comes up with an arrangement as far as soloing, but we all have input. We did the last record at the end of a tour, this past November. We had been playing a variety of tunes on the tour, but the record ended up being mostly Paul's originals. Which was fine with me— he's one of my favorite jazz composers.

AAJ: Tell us the differences, if any, of the European circuit versus the American circuit for Motian's band.

BM: I've only done two tours with him, and they've both been in Europe.

AAJ: How about for you, as a solo artist? Where do you do most of your solo gigs with your band? Differences, if any, of the European circuit for you solo? Have you even done any gigs there solo?

BM: I've been to Spain a few times with my band, but outside of that haven't done that much. I need to get on that...

AAJ: Who are the working members of your band? How did you go about assembling such a talented cast of musicians? Who do you gig with most often these days for your own dates? Who are you gigging with most often on the "sideman" front?

BM: These days I'm trying to keep the band to the same people— Theo Bleckmann, Kermit Driscoll, and Satoshi Takeishi. It's the only way to get inside this very challenging music. And I feel very fortunate to have found them, because besides being great musicians, they're really dedicated to this band and seem to give it a priority.

AAJ: Tell us more about your "career" with Maria Schneider's band and the elements of that gig that most hold your interest musically.

BM: Maria writes really interesting guitar parts. She has a great sense of how to use the guitar as an individual color, not just a reinforcement of horn parts, although that's also effective at times. I'm definitely not just chunking away there. Come to think of it, what ever happened to Chun King?

AAJ: I think it's available as a Japanese import...Ok, how do you see your deal with Arabesque playing out? Are they expecting a certain amount of output from you or a certain product from you? Do you have total artistic control? How do you collaborate with your producer?

BM: I don't think Arabesque is going to do any more of my recordings. But whatever happens in the future, I'm always going to need total artistic control.

AAJ: Where did you find Theo Bleckmann? How has it evolved that you have now become such close "collaborators" that you are actually part of each other's bands?

BM: Theo called me to do a duo gig around (I think) 1995, and the chemistry was immediate. We did the duo for a while before I had the idea to add him to my band, which had always been a trio. Theo is endlessly creative, can sing just about anything I put in front of him, and has a huge arsenal of extended vocal techniques. I also love the way he uses electronics. Anyway, our aesthetic visions seem to complement each other.

AAJ: Please tell us a bit about the evolution of the concepts for your most recent stuff. Excavation?

BM: With Excavation, I wanted to effect a marriage of the multifarious and often conflicting elements of Man's unconscious: the urge to self immolation with the urge for self-knowledge; the divine alongside the demonic. But ultimately it is a paean to the apocalypse, to the bracing truth that our darker impulses will prove our undoing, because they so often masquerade as our virtues.

AAJ: WOW...I hear that in there somewhere, actually...

BM: Actually, there's no real concept other than finishing enough tunes to make a record. Although Excavation was unique in the sense that I knew what the order was going to be before it was recorded.

AAJ: Origami?

BM: Origami is Theo's concept.

AAJ: I haven't asked this before because I thought I'd save it for your own stuff. Please tell us about your compositional approach. I mean tunes like "Mistral," "Ellenville" and "Hatchet Face" are extremely complex, with layer upon layer of harmony. Where does this compositional eruditeness come from.

BM: Concerning tunes like you just mentioned, my modus operandi seems to be to bite off more than I can chew, and then chew it anyway. But I don't have an "approach" as such. Each piece is unique and suggests its own problems and solutions, regarding harmony and form. In "Hatchet Face" I explored some serial ideas, but I'm completely unqualified to write a real serial piece, and if the 12 tone police ever found out, I'd be in trouble.

AAJ: I know you wouldn't want to tell anyone how to "listen" to your music. That being said, can you offer any helpful hints ?

BM: Get really stoned.

AAJ: Silly question. Do you write all the parts out?

BM: I write out all the parts except for the drums.

AAJ: What kind of recording technology are you using on these dates? Hard disc or analog?

BM: All three of my records were recorded to analog. I find it best preserves the dimensions of a guitar's sound. A digital reproduction doesn't shimmer in the same way. Flux, my first CD, was recorded live to two track, which was really hard considering the complexity of the music. The other two were done 24 track. As long as I'm recording original music, I'm going to need the flexibility to fix things.

AAJ: Are the players all in the same room, or are you overdubbing on a lot of the "sideman" stuff?

BM: That depends on the type of record, the studio, the budget, and of course the format of the recording. Sometimes fixes are done, sometimes not. Sometimes it's not possible to fix things even if the recording is multitrack, because of the way the band is set up. Actual overdubbing is rare on most things I do, with the exception of more rock oriented projects. A couple of my tunes have overdubs, like "Hatchet Face."

AAJ: How long is the recording process for your records? I'll bet extremely short. How much rehearsal occurs beforehand?

BM: We rehearse a lot and generally record in two days. Dust was a little different in that we had played the material a number of times on gigs, so rehearsal wasn't such an issue. Also, I've always done the solo pieces on a different day.

AAJ: With all you've got going on, how do you decide on which project to do next? It seems like you make room for everything. Is there a lot of work you decline?

BM: I don't decline that much. And the business is really erratic. Some months are wall to wall work, and some are really light. But when a conflict arises, I naturally try to choose that which is most rewarding musically.

AAJ: Explain to us your perception of yourself as an artist. Where do you see yourself on the jazz landscape. Are you even on the jazz landscape, or would you prefer the compositional or improvisatory landscape?

BM: I don't see myself on any landscape, which is maybe why I don't have any gigs. Or maybe because it's January...

AAJ: It'll warm up...trust me. Do you see yourself crossing into an almost modern classical approach ?Do you have tunes composed this way that are waiting in the wings?

BM: I just (as of a few hours ago) finished a long through-composed piece that might qualify as what you're talking about, but I wouldn't necessarily designate it as modern classical. I think it's hard for an individual to categorize his own work. I value composition as a means of expression, but I feel improvisation, both free and structured, is equally important. I wouldn't feel complete without both.

AAJ: Please explain to the fortunate folks who have seen you play live your thought process behind what tunes, or parts of tunes, you play sitting, or when you stand. Although you may not see it that way, I think it's a special element of your performances. It seems like you stand for single note passes. This makes it more dramatic, especially when your playing starts going in a rock direction.

BM: I just find it easier to play single note passages standing up, for some reason. I would prefer to stand the whole time, but a lot of things I've written are impossible to play that way. It has something to do with where the neck is in relation to my left hand.

AAJ: Are there other aspects of your technique you consider "unusual"?

BM: There's one tune where I have to play a bass note with my nose.

AAJ: What music holds your most extreme interest these days, and what of it may influence your next project or recording?

BM: I'm listening pretty much exclusively to two CDs right now—Alfred Schnittke's Psalms of Repentance and Morton Feldman's For Bunita Marcus But I find things to be influential obliquely, not directly.

AAJ: To wrap up, please tell us your musical plans, or projects in the pipeline , for 2002.

BM: Well, I'm writing a new batch of material for the quartet, and hope to get it recorded either this year or next. I've also been wanting to do a standards oriented recording, with a trio—maybe this is the year it will actually happen. Some other things—I have a duo tour with Theo in Japan coming up in May, and I'm working on some dates in Europe for the quartet in June. Other than that, I'm looking forward to a fairly busy spring of traveling with one thing or another, mostly sideman work. I guess my main hope for the coming year is just to stay inspired and productive.

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