Ben Monder’s Power of Now

Ben Monder is a musician who reminds us how important it is to focus within, re-imagine time and bring discipline and lightness to what some would call the practice of playing an instrument. And despite the prevalence of technology in contemporary music making, the electric guitar still retains a preeminent position as the most common starting point for much great music we hear across many genres. With Ben it’s easy to see why this remains the case.

At his recent master class in Vancouver as part of the always great Vancouver Jazz Fest’s free workshops at Tom Lee Music, Ben offered an intimate look at his process. It was unvarnished, unpretentious and enlightening for both the technically minded and the merely curious. A quiet, patient, and occasionally very funny man (he could be the Zen Steven Wright of jazz guitarist comedians!) he played Jule Styne’s I Fall in Love Too Easily (also covered by the great Ralph Towner) and took us back to the origin of his most trusted instrument; an old Ibanez semi-hollow body that he bought decades ago because, as he tells it, it looked cool in a picture he’d seen! There seems to be a mutually rewarding loyalty between instrument and player and he was clear in allowing that this loyalty was key to developing what might be called “his sound”. If you come across an instrument that is not perfect, you can still make it yours.

I have always liked players who take the sound of the guitar as a starting point for creating other worlds, ones which might not instantly be recognized as being guitar-based. So as a result, the likes of Christian Fennesz, Terje Rypdal, Eivind Aarset, and, more recently, Chihei Hatakeyama have become some of my favourites. And because I have very little knowledge of traditional jazz guitar history I usually buy in when players start to go towards the “outside”, when the instrument is used to craft unfamiliar landscapes. So it wasn’t surprising to find that Ben had studied the music of various 20th Century new music composers, citing Olivier Messiaen’s influence at one point.

I had always known Ben as part of a trio or as a sideman in jazz settings. And I only recently found out that he was the guitarist on Blackstar, David Bowie’s final album (which I now feel compelled to revisit). I was waiting for a purely solo guitar recording. So while not technically a solo release, his recent recording on ECM, 2015’s Amorphae, is as close as you’ll come. It is spare and measured, yet occasionally reaches escape velocity. It pulls and pushes at time and expectation within several tracks including the old Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. But his handling of that one standard on the LP does not render it unrecognizable the way Derek Bailey would have (thinking of his Ballads LP on Tzadik). And yet it fits in well within the recording’s overall ethereality. It is an austere, beautiful set that delivers a cumulative, understated power. It slowly demands that you be present for it, rather than succumbing to a state of ambient bliss.

There are numerous videos available on YouTube of Ben playing everything from adventurous, extended and distortion/sustain-drenched solos to a lovely and fairly straight rendition of Wichita Lineman with his trio. Please take the time to search them out. And if you have the opportunity to catch one of his masterclasses you will likely emerge a better player and you’re guaranteed a smile!




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Dry Falls


One of my favourite spots in Washington is the Grand Coulee/Dry Falls area that lies roughly in the middle of the state, east of the Cascades. It can get blisteringly hot and the landscape is more desert than rainforest. The geological history of the area is fascinating and I’ve explored and photographed it extensively over the past few decades. I’m so familiar with the land that it’s become more interesting to watch people interacting with it than carry on doing endless variations of landscape shots from the same viewpoints. This was taken in the summer of 2016. I will be doing some more shooting there this summer.

BBC did a nice piece recently that provides some background on…the background! It’s not often the area gets much international attention and this piece is pretty good. All the photos are taken from easy access viewpoints and were likely taken in spring as there’s some greenery and water flow at The Palouse Falls location.

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Point of Order


I’ve been a fan of painter Etienne Zack’s work for years and was pleased to learn he’s moved from LA to Point Roberts, Washington. Not exactly Vancouver, but close enough! I’m going to be very interested in how the more rural setting will affect his work which, for a number of years has involved the detailed rendering of fantastic rooms of books and documents lit by fluorescent tubes. I met up with Etienne to catch up and chat about his work for VR Media. This portrait was shot in his backyard, a far cry from his usual urban environs of Montreal or LA.


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Anja Lechner & François Couturier

anjalechner Munich-based cellist Anja Lechner and Paris-based pianist François Couterier are two musicians whose body of work has exemplified the diversity, delicacy and unapologetic beauty of the “ECM sound” over the past 20+ years . They have played with (among many others) Argentine bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi, Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem, together as a duo and as part of François’ outstanding Tarkovsky Quartet (formed in part, as tribute to the great Russian filmmaker). As a duo they have a current CD out titled Moderato Cantabile (featuring the music of Komitas, Mompou, and Gurdjieff) and the Tarkovsky Quartet has just released Nuit Blanche.

On February 21st they performed on a bill with the incomparable guitarist Ralph Towner at the Seattle Art Museum. I traveled down for the concert and to stay for a photo shoot with Anja and François the next day. The SAM and the Earshot Jazz crew were incredibly accommodating and Anja and François were delightful company throughout the afternoon. If they make it to these shores again you simply must see them. Theirs is a special chemistry in live performance.


And from the rehearsals on the day of the performance, here is a photo of Anja playing. François was a little harder to shoot during the performance due to the lighting arrangement. I don’t usually do performance photography but this moment during rehearsal allowed for me to be in an ideal spot on stage.


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emerson-masterMany years ago I bought a Deutsche Grammophon box set of the complete, recorded cycle of Bartok’s string quartets. The musicians were none other than the great New York-based Emerson Quartet, who I’ve subsequently enjoyed in concert countless times. Through my association with Friends of Chamber Music I’ve had the privilege of meeting, interviewing and occasionally dining with some of the greatest chamber players in the world, the Emersons among them. I’m also a fan of music packaging and posters so it has been a great deal of fun doing a series of posters for this august organization which has entailed coming up with a new look for the organization and a new marketing strategy for the 2016/17 season.

Postering has enjoyed a huge comeback in Vancouver so it was decided to get Friends of Chamber Music into the fray alongside DJ events, Rocky Horror revivals and everything else out there using the classic 11 by 17 poster to entice people through the doors. My first exposure to this street advertising format was during Vancouver’s punk heyday when I’d scan hoardings and lampposts for announcements of concerts by the Young Canadians or Subhumans. Since those days I’ve mostly worked with ambient, pop or jazz musicians on projects like this so it’s nice to finally come around and work with some old school, truly class(ic) acts!

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loscil 2016

scott-morgan72Scott Morgan (aka loscil) has a new release out on Kranky Records called Monument Builders. Somewhat darker in tone than past releases it bears all the hallmarks of a classic loscil release. I’ve written more about this on the VR Media site here:

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Mats Eilertsen

MatsEilertsenIf you came of age in the vinyl era you may have expanded your musical horizons by scanning the credits on record sleeves and booklets. You may have noticed that certain musicians, engineers and producers’ names kept coming up time and time again. These were often signposts for new paths to follow that would lead to further discovery of new music. It’s like looking at a healthy root system that eventually leads you up and out to broader vistas. In the jazz world, sometimes you’d just look for a label. Maybe it’s ECM, or Blue Note, or Verve. But root systems are varied and you need to pay attention.

What am I getting at? Well, I like many musicians on the ECM label. Many are from Norway and they frequently work on others’ projects. As you’ll note from the recent glut of portraits of ECM artists I’ve posted, a few of these fine players have come through town recently; Thomas Strønen, Tord Gustavsen, Anat Fort and Avishai Cohen. After failing to scan the credits on their releases in recent years, I missed the name Mats Eilertsen.

As his smoking hot trio played here at Ironworks in June as part of the Jazz Fest, I noticed Thomas Strønen was on drums! I’d seen Thomas with his duo Food and only just recalled that Mats was an original member of that group. Then later, after photographing Tord Gustavsen, I saw that Mats was the bassist on his two most recent ECM quartet albums. In short, Mats has been an integral part of so many great recordings and his trio is a delight.

And now he has his first release on ECM as leader. It’s called Rubicon and it’s out this month. On first listen it’s both classic ECM and a fresh reach with a large cast of new-ish players. I’ll be scanning the credits a little more carefully from now on.

Here’s the trio:


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New Cathedrals – Simin Tander and Tord Gustavsen

SiminTanderThis past June, Coastal Jazz brought a very unique trio to town that defied my expectations to deliver one of the most sublime concerts of the year at Christ Church Cathedral.

Tord Gustavsen has led a traditional piano trio for many years now, one which normally serves up a very pristine and beautiful (if often mournful) music. It’s almost out of place within the ECM catalogue because it is, on first impression, so very softly melodic, yearning and romantic. There is little in the way of abstraction, improvisation or inverted and toyed-with melodies that are typical of so many ECM recordings. His first trio outing for ECM was 2003’s Changing Places which features a gauzy curtain-like image on the cover which fits the mood almost too precisely. It would be dinner background music if you failed to listen carefully. But do. It’s so lovely!

Along with bassist Harald Johnsen (and more recently Mats Eilerstsen) in his usual working group is drummer Jarle Vespestad, who was previously with the insanely talented improvising Norwegian supergroup known as Supersilent (which they certainly were not, which was one reason he headed to the fold with Gustavsen). I’d seen him in 2008 with Supersilent and was initially surprised at hearing him settle into a far less abstract jazz idiom. With Gustavsen’s material, Vespestad frequently sticks to fingertip, brush and soft mallet. He’s a subtle master and his restrained style leaves no hint at the power and fury he’s capable of generating in other settings.

And that becomes the point. Gustavsen seems to cherish restraint and all of his recordings follow a similar path. Nothing is underdone or overdone. Everything seems considered and polished, but not to the point of preciousness. I’d previously avoided seeing him live because as much as I enjoy the recordings, I couldn’t imagine it translating well to the concert hall and generating much excitement. But that was a mistake, and I nearly did it again this year.

The new CD is called What was said, and in place of a bassist, it features Afghan/German singer Simin Tander. It is a unique set because it has Tord reworking traditional Norwegian Lutheran hymns (with which he was raised), creating new pieces around the poetry of Rumi, and otherwise creating delicate, gem-like fusions around themes of grief, longing and unbound faith. Simin sings the pieces in English, Pashto and an improvised, imagined language where translation isn’t necessary…or possible! However, a quiet room and a good sound system is. It almost comes at a whisper at times, so much so that I imagined the music risked being so delicate as to float away in a venue like Christ Church Cathedral when performed live.

On the evening of the concert I had a front row seat, right in front of the minimal drum kit. The trio emerges and right away there is the feeling that something special’s going to happen. And it does. Jarle comes out in a dark, snug suit and eventually brings out a glass of red wine. A class act, and he is a joy to watch in performance. Tord also cut a fine, gentlemanly figure and stopped on occasion to speak (softly) about the music and the international and interfaith nature of some of the pieces.

Most of the new CD is performed, but offering versions that make it a live tour de force! Simin Tander is magnificent and lets fly several times during many ebbs and swells of the evening which are bathed in a subtle electronic soundscapes and given added weight with Tord playing synth bass parts with the left hand. Simin was most riveting when she employed singing techniques which I cannot name but I assume are typical of, or adapted from, her ancestral homeland. The Cathedral, under tarps and scaffolding while restoration and construction carry on, was not only the perfect venue but felt like the perfect place for discovering a new faith in the live experience of a music steeped in several.

TordFinalThe next morning I met Tord and Simin at The Sandman Inn, one of the least appealing looking hotels in the city’s least appealing downtown zone. An aging 1980s sports architecture aesthetic dominates the area and I was at a loss for location options. Oh, and I had 15 minutes before they were to be picked up to be taken to the airport. Gracious and generous, they arrived at my makeshift spot by a shelter on the QE Theatre plaza, coffees in hand. They looked effortlessly great. We enjoyed a brief chat and were able to get these portraits done in time for them to make the connection for their show that night in Rochester! Sometimes you just need a little faith!

Check them out here:

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Seeing the Forest with Anat Fort

AnatFort2 There was a time when I didn’t understand why anyone needed more than one or two great jazz piano trio recordings. But once I came to see the format as one of the most efficient and flexible configurations for revealing a composer’s voice and character in the fullest sense, I can’t seem to get enough. Further, ECM, the world’s premier independent jazz label is going through an extremely productive phase right now and right in the heart of this purple patch is Anat Fort, an Israeli born, New York-based pianist who embraces a delicate lyricism yet finds elliptical breezes at unexpected moments. Her music satisfies the heart and intellect in equal, seemingly effortless, measure.

She has three recordings out on ECM. While my favourite remains A Long Story, her first on ECM, Birdwatching, the new one that includes Italian clarinetist Gianluigi Trovesi, is gaining ground after I saw her perform material from the album in a duo with Trovesi at the Vancouver Jazz Fest in June. We’d arranged to meet up for a brief chat and some photos. Anat has played here with her trio before and has a fondness for the city, likening the waterfront, in part, to that of her home town of Tel Aviv. She will be back!AnatFort1

MM: What is it about the classic trio format that appeals to you?

Anat: I feel that more than three people on the stage is challenging. I can play solo, in a duo, as part of a quartet and with an orchestra but there’s always something about the trio. It is like a triangle that is not always equidistant where the lengths between points are not always the same. It can change the balance between these three points but it always comes back to being a triangle. Some how the trio feels right to me.

MM: You’re very much associated with Paul Bley (her mentor) and Paul Motion (who appears on A Long Story), two musicians who are more often given to abstraction. Your music seems more frequently lyrical and melodic.

Anat: Yes I’m highly influenced by Paul and … Paul! But I think you will hear that the lyrical and melodic parts may come from the influence of Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. I am just as influenced by them. I always talk to my students about the importance of melody. It can become very abstract along the way – all kinds of stuff can happen – but the essence of a piece is contained in the melody.

MM: What is the well you most often return to for inspiration?

Anat: On a daily basis the well is called “Bach”!

MM: I was thinking non-musical!

Anat: In many ways, nature. And it doesn’t have to be going out into the wild. It can be walking in the park next door to where I live, just hanging out with the trees. That’s something that always brings me back to myself. It’s very easy to ignore because trees are everywhere in North America and even Tel Aviv. True, it’s not the same as going out into a wilder landscape but I try to do what’s within my reach.

And the sea. The Mediterranean is ten minutes from where I live. Water always moves me and everything that moves around it like the clouds and the movement of the birds…the basics, you know?

MM: Which brings up an obvious question in light of the title of the new Album!

Anat: I’ve never been a serious birder but I have done some birdwatching and hope to get into it more!


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Time is a Blind Guide – Thomas Strønen


I first heard of Thomas Strønen via his work with Food on the Rune Grammofon label in 2004. The CD was called (wait for it!) Last Supper. Food’s core was always Thomas and saxophonist Iain Ballamy but each release expanded with new personnel. At the time I’d found very few percussionist-led groups very satisfying. But Food was different, largely because it was really a duo and though Strønen appears to be the predominant force, it wouldn’t fly without Ballamy’s ability to dovetail and flesh out the arrangements with reeds and electronics. Together they are almost a more urgent variant on the John Surman/Jack DeJohnette sax, electronics and percussion duo model.

I usually expect a sax/percussion duo to be very spare and possibly too reliant on extended technique. Not so with Food. Alternately delicate and forceful, Food packs a tasteful complexity and registers Thomas as an immediately identifiable personality, which, to my mind, is the ultimate goal in music making. Adding a degree of lyricism and humour they approach perfection. Subsequent releases went from strength to strength. The label shift to ECM brought us Quiet Inlet and Mercurial Balm which included contributions from Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz, and Eivind Aarset and Nils Petter Molvaer, two long time favourites of mine from the Norwegian hybrid jazz/electronic scene.

In January of 2014 I nearly missed Food at Ironworks. Coastal Jazz had brought them to town and I just caught the listing online at the last minute, cancelled whatever I had planned and headed to the venue post haste. It was one of the most memorable concerts I’d seen there. The funny part was that Alex Varty, writing in the Georgia Straight, referered to them as a “Euro Jazz Supergroup”! No. Just two guys with a telepathic connection and a traveling kitbag packed with explosive talent! I spoke to Iain and Thomas briefly afterwards and we promised to stay in touch for the next visit. That opportunity came not as a Food concert but with Thomas playing with Mats Eilertsen (also a Food alumnus) at Ironworks in June as part of Coastal Jazz’s always excellent Innovations series. This time we had loads of time for some portraits and chat.

The new release from Thomas (leading a larger group) is called Time is a Blind Guide and it represents a high water mark for both the artist and the ECM label. I don’t want to be in the business of reviewing CDs (if you’re reading something on this blog, just assume I love it!) so here’s The Guardian’s take on it

It’s also notable for having one of the nicer cover images in keeping with the “late period” ECM “house style”!





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