Ben Monder: Le Monde du Monder

Phil DiPietro By

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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.



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