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Ben Monder: Surprise from Cohesion

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When I started thinking about doing a record, it wasn
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.

AAJ: This album continues your work with vocalist Theo Bleckmann. He's got an interesting role here—not a lead singer, exactly—more like another instrument. You've worked with him a lot over the years.

BM: About eleven years now.

AAJ: His contributions to this record are considerable. Why a vocalist at all? What's he bringing to the music?

BM: When I first start of using him in the band, I hadn't written specifically for voice. But I thought some of the melodies needed reinforcement. So with some of the trio pieces, I had him doubling some of the melodies, and I thought it worked well—I really couldn't hear another instrument playing those same melodies. It seemed like voice, and in particular, his voice, was the only thing that was going to work. So he joined the band, and I started hearing things for him specifically and writing individual parts for him. That's sort of how it evolved. Again, I don't hear other instruments playing those parts; I just don't think it would work. I guess maybe the voice makes some of the complexity a little more accessible and maybe otherwise some of it could be a little forbidding. But if it sounds like it's a song, even if there are no words, it might be easier to deal with.

AAJ: Yes, now that I've heard the music as it is, it is hard to imagine something else playing those notes. I can't imagine, for example, a trumpet doing it.

BM: Right, and that might even be the closest thing.

AAJ: Speaking of Theo, let's start by talking about the shortest piece by far on this album of long tunes, which is "Light. This is a very brief, multi-tracked, a cappella Bleckman performance—a canon. It's gorgeous and unique and sort of acts as a prelude to the song "Oceana, which follows it, even though it has nothing in common with "Oceana. The musical material of "Light also recurs later in the song "Rooms of Light. What's its story?

BM: Actually, we were mixing "Rooms of Light, mixing the chorale part from that without the instruments, and I thought it sounded cool. So we just decided to print a version without the instruments. So it's not a separate performance; it's just that part [laughing] of that other tune. I thought it would be nice for it to recur later to kind of lend some unity to the whole record.

AAJ: That's great. "Light occurs pretty early on the CD, and when I heard that vocal melody again in "Rooms of Light, I thought, "brilliant! It's an album.

BM: [laughing] Well, I grew up in the seventies, in the rock epic concept- record age, so it's a little bit of an homage to that.

AAJ: Somehow that brings us to the album's title track, "Oceana, which is a fantastic song that sound like nothing else that's out there in music now. I suppose it's all based on that arpeggio phrase that you play at the very beginning, but the tune is long and goes through a variety of permutations and sections—in my mind, I hear three sections to this. I love the knotted, connected way you and Kermit Driscoll play and the way the song builds tension through its density and rigor—it doesn't ever really release that tension, either. Other than Ted's drum break near the end, I don't really hear any improvisation in this song.

BM: There isn't any. Originally I meant for there to be a solo section, just so it could qualify as a jazz piece [laughing], but then it just didn't seem to work, so I took it out. Three sections—well, I don't know. I would think there are five. There's the original theme that occurs twice more. Like you said, everything is some kind of treatment of the first four bars or so of the tune. I'm breaking it down into basically two subjects, one more scalar and one more angular, and kind of going back and forth between those, doing different things with them. So there's the first statement, which is pretty much non-tonal. Then I'm taking the first part of the theme and putting it into a more tonal context—that's the second part. It kind of goes from G minor, then there's a little E minor section and back to G minor. Then there are some pedals and then the original theme comes back. Then there's a sparser section where I'm taking the second theme and working that through—I don't know how technical you want to get, but I'm taking a particular scale and moving that in minor thirds and putting that sort of angular shape through that. That goes on for a few minutes, so that would be part three.

AAJ: So now we're getting to Theo's vocal, right?

BM: Yeah, exactly. And that somewhat violent strumming section—that was going to be the solo section, but I decided to just strum those chords instead of trying to play over them. Then what would constitute a release would be Theo's little cameo. I don't know—thematically, I can't really justify that; I don't know where that comes from. But it did seem like the right thing to do at the time. The guitar part is just a bunch of tone rows, and he's singing this melody over it. Then when it gets really fast over those pedals, that would be the, ah, fifth section now?

AAJ: Sure. So now we're at that rapid section.

BM: Yeah. And that, again, just deals with the first phrase of the original theme and extends it in different ways—goes through three different pedals. Then it goes back to the second section.

AAJ: Yeah, that telepathic time change to the slower time.

BM: Well, it's not telepathic at all. It just slows down. The magic of digital editing! And so, let's see if I remember it right—it leads back into the final statement of the original theme in its entirety, which ends in the drum break. I put that in because I couldn't end it there—but you needed a vacation from all those notes, so I figured, well, take a drum solo.

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