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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.

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