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Ben Monder: Surprise from Cohesion

Paul Olson By

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When I started thinking about doing a record, it wasnt my intention to have it basically 90% through-composed. It's just kind of what happened.
After twenty years in New York City, guitarist Ben Monder has played with, well, everyone: Paul Motian, Guillermo Klein, Tim Berne, Jack McDuff, Lee Konitz, Maria Schneider, and a plethora of other notables. At the same time, he's been quietly creating some outstanding work as a leader, fronting his own trio and quartet and releasing, to date, four CDs under his own name. The ultimate example of the musician's musician, Monder seems to be almost universally praised and respected by his peers: "you're interviewing Ben? Good—he deserves a lot more attention.

Monder may be too sui generis an artist to get as much attention as he merits—records like Dust (1997, Arabesque) and Excavation (2000, Arabesque) aren't the sorts of swinging, standards-stuffed, guest-star-loaded albums jazz radio programmers adore—but he seems to have turned a significant corner with his remarkable new album Oceana, released near the end of 2005 on Sunnyside Records.

If anything, Monder's music has gotten even more distilled and strange, but Oceana's blend of virtuosity, thematic rigor and outright heaviness impressed a lot of listeners and placed it on a lot of critic's best of 2005 lists. The playing is exceptional throughout, but air-guitarists beware—these are pieces that create indelible and sometimes unnervingly alien sonic worlds and the moods they establish aren't easily dispelled.

"I'm told I'm an interviewer's nightmare, Monder told me as we concluded our interview, but he really isn't. A thoughtful, cautious conversationalist not given to hyperbole or blather, Monder'll tell you anything you need to know—you just have to wait him out and not interrupt. His explanations of how Oceana came to be—and the crises and travails that accompanied its creation—were worth waiting for.

All About Jazz: I really just want to talk about your great new CD Oceana . This is your first album since Excavation, which came out in 2000. I know you're an extremely busy musician, but five years is a long time. What took so long?

Ben Monder: It takes me a long time to write, really. It takes me a long time to write anything. And it also takes me a long time after a record comes out to even start writing again. It didn't really feel that long, you know—I just work on a really long time continuum, I guess. And my busyness as a sideman—though I always feel I could be busier—all that work tends to be a distraction. Although I do end up doing a lot of writing on the road. Airport gates and hotel rooms are some of my favorite places sometimes; somehow I always come up with stuff there. Yeah, the last one came out in 2000, and I probably started writing just a few months after that and finished everything by 2003 or so. But rehearsing the band and performing some of the stuff—just the recording itself took about a year to make. And I didn't have a label; it was the first time I did it without a label funding it. So it took more time to even find a label after that.

AAJ: Those are good reasons. Let's talk about the personnel before we get into the individual songs on the record. This is your first CD with Ted Poor on drums; the drummer on your other three records was Jim Black. I don't actually have a preference between these two—I like each of them a lot. Do you think Poor brings something different here?

BM: He does have a different sound. I think he has kind of a different feel, like for the one rock tune.

AAJ: "Rooms of Light?

BM: Yeah. It's hard to say, but it sounds like he's played more actual rock music; it seems like he has roots in that kind of music. And the sound of his drums is different—I think he tunes them lower. I like that, especially for that one tune. I love Jim, and if he weren't so busy, I'd still be using him. But I can't think of anyone that would do a better job with that music than Ted at this point.

AAJ: There are two different bassists on this CD. There are two songs with Kermit Driscoll on, respectively, acoustic and electric bass. He's on a bunch of my favorite records from 2005. Then there's Skuli Sverrisson, who's on your last record as well, and he's just playing electric. The tunes they play on are somewhat different, and so is their attack. Would you explain the choice of players? Did you tailor them to the individual pieces?

BM: Not really. I wrote all the music, really, without anyone's sound in mind. Kermit was my working bassist at that time when I would do gigs—he was just more available at a certain point than Skuli was so I started using him. But there were technical challenges for a couple of those tunes and, well, I don't know how to put this delicately—he just wasn't able to play some of those parts. Part of it was that he had a five-string bass and Skuli has a six-string. I knew Skuli would be able to play it; it was just a matter of him putting the work in. And the other pieces also needed a certain sound—they needed that extra string, like that piece "Spectre, because there are some chords written for the bass where you need to hold notes. So for that one, Skuli's sound just worked better.


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