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!