At this time of year, critics and fans alike take pause to contemplate the evolution, or some would argue, the devolution, of modern music. By any account, modern jazz guitar styles keep progressing forward at a robust clip, and no guitarist so pushed them forward in 2005 as Ben Monder. “Oceanawas” not only 2005’s finest release by a jazz guitarist, but its most forward-thinking (and executed) jazz recording, breaking new ground by de-emphasizing form, and sometimes even melody, for the sake of mood, emotion, sentiment and rhapsody, incorporating progressive, modern classical and twelve-tone compositional tendencies along the way. Oceana propels Ben Monder out of the jazz guitar’s vanguard into its established elite, alongside such icons as Frisell, Metheny and Holdsworth.
Few players today exhibit such mind-boggling and bending skills at both devastating linear single-note soloing [Rooms of Light solo excerpt] and superhumanly-arpeggiated chording [Dust excerpt]. Ben can switch, at will, from flying over a quartet with reticulating single-note lines to supplanting his bands with an orchestra of six strings that he, in turn, can switch from melancholically melodious to dissonantly disparate.
Monder has appeared on over one hundred recordings, each one of them elevated at least one star in the ratings because if his inimitable contributions. The cream of the crop includes a 2001 session on Reid Anderson’s the “Vastness of Space”, which portended Anderson’s popular penchant for melding a melodic rock emphasis with jazz with his current band, The Bad Plus. In that same year, Ben recorded a telepathic session with drummer Gerald Cleaver’s Veil of Names project, including keyboardist Craig Taborn, violist Mat Maneri and Anderson, creating an adventurous, inside-outside masterpiece. Saxophonist Bill McHenry’s finest outing, The Bill McHenry Quartet featuring Paul Motian, heavily featured Ben’s searing, yet insightful and refined, contributions. More recently, Ben has logged his first appearance on ECM, a label to which his style is indisputably correlated, with Paul Motian’s band, on the elegant Garden of Eden.
“Oceana” is Ben’s fourth recording as a sole leader, with another, called “No Boat”, issued as a co-leader with beyond-vocalist Theo Bleckmann. This artistic partnership, also forged together with Beckmann’s recording as sole leader, “Origami”, is all the more powerful right now, as Bleckmann’s star is not coincidentally, jointly on the rise.
“Oceana” is Ben’s watermark recording in more than name, a sea of his creation for you to lose yourself unto, revealing new heights and depths with each listen. It can be imposing and undecipherable at times, but more than worth the price and time invested in the journey. We’ve injected sound samples in the interview below, into the running commentary by Ben, so that this modest genius might help give us insight and impetus into the swirling, churning, eddying world of his creation.
PD: This music is indefinable and you’re just seeming to incorporate so many sources. Would you say this record is like your shining achievement? Or is it just the next step?
BM: I think it’s my best record. Every record is the next step, obviously. It’s kind of hard to put into context because I just finished it and I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next. When I did Excavation I thought, That’s it for that kind of writing and that kind of music. That was really hard, I’m not doing that ever again (laughs). And then I went and did something even more demanding. So I can’t really say what’s going to happen or where it exists along the continuum.
PD: To me, all of “Oceana”, except for the track Rooms of Light, picks up on let’s say, some deeper kinds of influences, like semi- classical influences.
BM: Like Mantovani you mean? (laughs) [NOTE: Mantovani was a popular conductor and entertainer in the easy listening classical style dubbed semi-classical.]
PD: No, I mean modern classical – more like some of your previously stated influences like Schnittke and Feldman.
BM: There are no specific influences that I’m really aware of, which I think is kind of normal. Any influences are generally manifested instinctively and intuitively.
PD: While there are two solo guitar pieces on the recording, the track “Oceana” sounds like it could be another solo guitar piece that you stuck the band on afterwards. First of all, is that true?
BM: (Laughs) That’s a good call, yeah. I had the whole thing written just for guitar before I wrote the bass part.
PD: That bass part is pretty complex. Was none of Kermit’s part improvised, or worked out by him individually?
BM: No I wrote it and he played it.
PD: Well, he really gave it a perfect take.
BM: Oh, definitely, he really played it perfectly. [Oceana excerpt 1:00-1:40 (sample 1)].
PD: Can you help us out with how you work out a time signature on a tune like that?
BM: It’s not in regular meter. It shifts. There are sections in four:four. It actually starts out pretty simply, with a bar of four and a bar of three then four bars of four and a bar of two. It gets more irregular later.
PD: It gives the effect of an upward spiral to my ears. Is it intended to sound like your tumbling around under the ocean or coming up from underneath? [Oceana excerpt 2:00-2:30 (sample 2)]
BM: For one thing, I think of the ocean as something that already contains everything, like there’s a vast amount in there. So in keeping with that, I threw everything but the kitchen sink into this piece. So there’s that element. But there’s also a concept I was thinking of known as the oceanic experience. The way I learned it is that in the womb, and after it is born, an infant doesn’t experience a separation between himself and the outside world for a period of time – hence there is no real distinction between self and other. It’s kind of a mystical state that, as an adult, you might try to achieve through other means.
PD: Or in this case, by listening to your music.
BM: It’s something I’ve always been fascinated with, and I guess I was trying to generate the feeling of not really having a solid ground to stand on in the way that there is no clear tonality for the entire piece. Instead, you’re kind of being swept up in this thing, you know
There is one other relevant image that I remember from when I was a kid. I remember seeing a movie- I don’t even know what movie it was- it could have even been Moby Dick for all I know. There’s a last scene where this guy harpoons a whale and the harpoon is somehow attached to the guy’s belt and he is just dragged through the ocean, presumably to his death – he’s just dragged helplessly through the water by the whale. That image has stuck with me and corresponds with part of that feeling of instability within the piece – an instability with a lot of forward momentum.
PD: Do these images factor in while you’re writing or do they come to you after you play it?
BM: I think unconsciously they are there. You can look for certain significant events or interests or experiences in your life and those are always going to play a part in what you create. After you’ve created something, you can maybe identify what experience contributed to that particular output, or served as the archetype for it, you know what I mean?
PD: The song really kind of stops at the four-minute mark [Oceana excerpt 3:50-4:10 (sample 3)], and the group kind of takes a collective breath before it moves into the following section. It kind of changes into a different song at about seven-and-a-half minutes in. [Oceana excerpt 7:20-7:45 (sample 4)]
BM: Thematically, the song is dealing with a really limited amount of material and taking it through its different paces. So yeah, at the four minutes there is a slight change, but at the 7-minute mark, which is about the halfway point in the song, there is a release, a respite from all the activity.
PD: Theo’s vocal at that point sounds submerged, and the way you’re doubling the melody with him, popping the notes of the neck, it sounds like a bubble-like. [Oceana excerpt 7:55-8:25 (sample 5)]
BM: That’s not me playing the unison part with Theo it’s Kermit.
PD: Wow. Good for him.
BM: Yeah, he’s gotta go pretty high up on the bass, but….
PD: Then it goes into a more rocking section a proggy section, the most rocking thing on the discs except for Rooms of Light.
BM: Yeah, but its still using the thematic material from the opening section.
PD: I want to particularly ask how you achieve the fluid arpeggiation there. [Oceana excerpt 11:08-11:35 (sample 6)] There is one thing that is almost an instant harp-harmonic thing. [Oceana excerpt 12:20-12:27 (sample 7)]
BM: I’d call that a bit of a guitaristic trick that seems to fit into the tune.
PD: After that there are some dark voicings, a drum solo and a ridiculously tight ending. The word cinematic doesn’t do the composition justice. Is that tune the centerpiece, or takeoff point, for the whole record?
BM: I guess so. I don’t think it’s that important to have a centerpiece, per se. I’d say it’s definitely the most ambitious thing we tried to pull off.
PD: Do you look at the whole record as a suite, though?
BM: Yes, I kind of do. Ideally it should be listened to as a whole. Actually, I originally envisioned having a three-part suite on the record. The suite consisted of “Oceana”,‿ then a tune that we recorded that didn’t even make it onto the record, and Rooms of Light. I had the whole CD sequenced in my mind before we recorded. But for one thing, in reality it didn’t end up working musically, and for another, there was actually too much music to fit on the record. There were more than 80 minutes, so I cut one of the tunes and jumbled everything around. It was tough to sequence but I think I finally got a good one. Originally, I had the two solo pieces reversed, and then someone suggested that I not start the thing off with such a long, dark solo piece.
PD: Yeah, it would have been too intense. You have to draw us into your web first, Ben.
BM: It wound up being a good idea to get it sold to a label, and also a good idea musically.
PD: By the way, Double Sun isn’t that dark of a piece…it’s Dark and Light (laughs).
BM: Yeah, well it’s all relative.
PD: In terms of guitar stuff, you’re getting a beefy bass sound on that cut, almost as if you’re processing the signal or pumping it through a bass amp or something. [Double Sun excerpt 0:13-0:30 (sample 8)]
BM: No. I used a blackface Fender Deluxe that a friend of mine lent me, and my usual Fender Princeton.
PD: Continuing on with Double-Sun, at the two and a half minute mark, the previously dark harmony shifts, ever so slightly, but becomes dramatically more… optimistic, for lack of a better word. Is that what’s intended? [Double Sun excerpt 2:10-2:40 (sample 9)]
BM: I don’t really think about motives like changing someone’s mood, or optimistic versus pessimistic, or any sort of secondary emotions. I am just dealing with materials and how best to shape them. So yes, there is a transformation from more of a harmonic rub to eventually just the one key, or a shift from dark to light.
PD: What do you mean by harmonic rub?
BM: Just when two remote keys touch each other -it’s similar to tension.
PD: Well, the sound is definitely darkness to light, for me. The emphasis also shifts from the high strings to the bottom strings after a while.
BM: Yes. I transfer the theme to the bottom, and then the flurries or whatever you want to call them, the arpeggios, are reversed. Instead of going down up down they’re reversed, going up down up.
PD: I was going to ask a technique question because it seems like you can’t possibly hit that right every time. [Double Sun excerpt 3:48-4:04 (sample 10)]
BM: Actually that’s not one of the harder parts of the tune, It’s funny what sounds hard and what is hard, because often they’re the opposite things. Let me see something here (Ben plays some lightning-fast arpeggios, direct quotes from Double Sun, over the phone).
PD: That’s it.
BM: See, I can do that holding the phone – it’s not that big of a deal. The hardest part of the tune is keeping the five-against-three polyrhythm going when there are also inner voices moving. Then there’s a bass drone, so keeping all the rhythms consistent is hard. The technique stuff is easy when compared to rhythmic and even more, just mental stuff.
PD: Do you practice that? Are there exercises for that?
BM: There are no exercises besides the piece, no, but I certainly practice the piece. Then the piece becomes its own exercise. People sometimes ask me what kind of exercises I do to develop my right hand to be able to play these pieces. But the pieces themselves are very specific problems. So the only way to prepare for them is just to do them.
PD: About 9 minutes in it sounds like very dark classical music. [Double Sun excerpt 8:40-9:20 (sample 11)]
BM: Actually the part of the tune you’re referring to is the only time the polyrhythm seven-over-four comes into play. That’s just straight seven-over-four, whereas the rest of the tune has the five-over-three, but disguised in groups of four. The seven-over-four polyrhythm there actually sounds more like it’s in groups of three. Like this: dak-a- tah, dak- a-tah, dak-a-tah, dak-a-tah. But I’m feeling it in groups of seven, and to me, it never really seems like it comes out right.
PD: Well, it’s just a gorgeously dark and rhapsodic thing and I thank you for composing it.
BM: No problem (laughs).
PD: So, I’d say part of that track relates directly to Spectre. which is another ghostly, hypnotic composition. But Spectre sounds like groups of notes that keep extending themselves and cutting themselves back.
BM: It starts kind of like that. But generally, the guitar parts are in groups of twelve notes. They’re actually tone rows. Then, there’s what Theo sings over them – the rows under that transform little by little – and the part he sings is also a row. [Spectre excerpt 1:48-2:45 (sample 12)] Then there is a little bridge section where we play in unison. After the bridge it recalls the beginning, with more rows and the melody going twice as fast in relation to the accompaniment. Then for no apparent reason I start playing triads. [Spectre excerpt 6:10-6:54 (sample 13)] .
PD: Echolalia has a pastoral loping, ECM feel, and it features a typically liquid and effortless-sounding single-note Monder solo.
BM: I felt in the studio like I could barely squeeze that thing out. You know, on a project like this, I was hardly using a pick, so to go from that to playing a solo in a standard picking sort of way, my chops weren’t so up for that on this session.
PD: Well, it sounds like they were. You’re pulling from so many sources, including the best bits of be-bop, especially those half-step glisses from note to note. [Echolalia excerpt 4:10-4:35 (sample 14)] That stuff will just spill out of you at gigs. Were you a bit anti-solo for this record?
BM: No not at all. That’s just what the compositions were – it wasn’t a preconceived idea. Obviously, the solo pieces are composed, and then “Oceana” is all composed. And you come to the point where you realize this record is just not going to be about soloing. So there were just these two solos to consider when sequencing the record. It seems like when that one comes up, about 30 minutes into the record, it’s definitely time to hear some improvisation- the listener’s ears are ready for it.
PD: To ask it another way, this is your most through composed record, right?
BM: Oh, definitely yes! Now I see what you mean. You mean non-solo, not anti-solo.
PD: Exactly. For me, Rooms of Light is the easiest song to talk about. I hear it as very accessible to prog or fusion fans. We’ve heard that bass line before, but you’ve stamped it as your own, somehow.
BM: The idea for the bass line is a clave I got from Guillermo Klein. He is a great Argentinian pianist and composer that I play with and have recorded with. He wrote a bunch of pieces based on this clave that can fit over two bars of three. In sixteenth notes, it’s a total of 24 notes in groups of 7, 7, 7 and 3. I took that idea and played with it. Basically, I put the 3 in different places in relation to the three groups of 7. One complete cycle takes four bars of 6/4. [Rooms of Light excerpt 1:03-1:30 (sample 15)].
PD: It sounds like a unison riff between you and Skuli, but then you listen closely and it’s never the same!
BM: Right. Then later it kind of expands harmonically, keeping the same rhythmic pattern. The intervals start widening.
PD: Did you have to rehearse a piece like that endlessly before you cut it?
BM: I think Skuli really worked hard on getting his part together. By the time we got together to rehearse, he pretty much had it down, We really got it in just under the wire, though. We never performed that piece live. I don’t remember how many rehearsals we had with Skuli, but it was maybe four. It really didn’t come together until the day before the session.
PD: You knocked that out of the park. Ted Poor just killed it.
BM: I’m forever indebted to Ted for his performance on that.
PD: And Theo doubling you is phenomenal.
BM: We just cut a duo recording in Brooklyn. We originally set up a two-day session in June but on the first day, the computers crashed, so we only got the second day. Then literally from June until December we couldn’t find a day we could both be in New York to finish it. I think it came out well. It should come out in the Fall on Songlines.
PD: “No Boat” and “Origami” are both amazing. People need to discover these recordings.
BM: If they want to discover them, they’ll discover them.
PD: So, do you have a preferred lineup you’d like to record with?
BM: Ted’s really just ideal at this point. I think that comes across on the record. He really instinctively gets inside this music.
PD: I see he’s doing a lot of stuff with other people. I hope he realizes he’s got the best gig of his life.
BM: Yeah, well if I had any gigs (laughs).
PD: Actually, you have loads of gigs.
BM: Well, maybe, but not as a leader. I’m workin’ on it though, I swear. In terms of a band, I’ve been playing lately with Ben Street on acoustic bass and Ted. I’m interested in getting back to the trio format and see what I can write for it and concentrate a little more on the improvisational side of things. It’s more fun to deal with live than trying to perform the through-composed pieces.
PD: See, this is another reason jazz is weird, I mean compared to rock. The notion of putting a band together to tour behind a record and sort of doing a bunch of gigs behind it almost makes no sense at all does it?
BM: Well, actually it does make sense. I feel like I should be trying to support this record with some gigs but…
PD: To make a rock analogy, this is like a concept suite or something. It needs to be heard live from beginning to end.
BM: You mean like play a set and have that be the set? You mean play the record down live?
PD: Don’t tell me – that’s boring right?
BM: You know, it could be exhilarating in it’s own way…
PD: On the other hand, you’re one of the guys who could probably run your repertoire down solo. Have you done solo gigs?
BM: I’ve done maybe three or four.
PD: That must be tendonitis-inducing.
BM: It’s not so much that as it is nerve-wracking. It takes so much preparation. I have to lock myself in a room for a while and work out an entire program.
PD: Well, it’s not like you’d do standards, like Joe Pass. Which brings up another line of questioning. To me you must have had a past that includes an incredibly rigorous study of chord styles, and theory and harmony. Where does that come from?
BM: Let’s see, Chord Chemistry?
PD: Really? Did you use that book?
BM: Oh yes. It’s my favorite book. I got a lot of stuff from that. But a teacher I had, Chuck Wayne, was very influential in that realm. He had a great way of working out jazz harmony on the guitar, and it’s the way I teach it, even today.
PD: Are you taking his thing a step further?
BM: Not even. It’s really just about learning the basics really thoroughly, although Chuck didn’t teach all six voicing types, he taught four, because I guess he thought those four were the most useful. Don’t ask me what they’re called. Basically, they went from close position to what he called split. So I just extended that to include the other two voicings -so there are six. So for every seventh chord there are 24 ways to voice it. There are six types and four inversions, so if you apply that to every possible seventh chord, or really any four note chord at all, then – you have no life whatsoever (laughs).
PD: But you like it that way, right?
BM: That’s not entirely accurate.
PD: Have you checked out Mick Goodrick?
BM: I like Mick’s almanac books. The Chuck Wayne thing is somewhat different. Basically, it’s learning all these grips (laughs) – it’s not really about voice-leading so much. He might tell you to take a voicing up through the scale -taking every note of the chord to the next note of the scale, but that’s kind of the opposite of the way Goodrick’s trying to teach it. Goodrick is all voice-leading.
PD: I know you taught at the New England Conservatory last year. Is that what you taught there?
BM: Yeah, that’s what I would start people on.
PD: Did you teach a course there or give lessons?
BM: I just gave private lessons.
PD: So was there a shift in focus to eliminate the job at the Conservatory?
BM: I wouldn’t call it a shift in my focus, no. Just to try to have any focus at all, to begin with. I felt like my energy was just becoming too dissipated. Some people find that teaching gives them energy, but I just found it draining. Plus, I was running around, spreading myself too thin, and I started having some health problems, which are thankfully resolved at this point.
PD: So what other projects have you thrown yourself into?
BM: Tony Malaby has a new group that’s really fun – I’ve done three or four gigs with him, but I’m very excited about this band. He’s just one of my favorite all-time sax players-really incredible.
PD: Do you guys have plans to record?
BM: I think he will probably want to record this group. It’s still pretty new and I think he wants to write some new stuff or it. It’s also Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Nasheet Waits on drums, and Eivind Opsvik on bass. We last played about a week ago.
PD: Maria Schneider’s thing really took off last year.
BM: Oh yeah, she has a lot of gigs these days. I’ve also got a week at the Vanguard coming up with the Electric Be-Bop Band and then I’m playing there again with McHenry’s quartet in February, and I’ve been playing some with Donny McCaslin’s quartet.
PD: Are any of the other fantastic recordings or bands you’ve been in getting it together a little more? Like Gerald Cleaver’s Veil of Names band or the Reid Anderson’s Vastness of Space band?
BM: I think Gerald’s on to a different band. That was just for the record. We did one gig before the date, the Edgefest in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Then we did the date, and we never played together after that. As for the band that played on the Vastness of Space record, I really liked that band. We all referred to it as the animal band. Everyone in that circle had an animal name.
PD: Ok, I’ll bite. Who were you?
BM: I was cow.
PD: OK, why were you cow?
BM: I think because I didn’t want to be Zebra.
PD: OK, obviously (laughs). What about Chris Cheek?
BM: I haven’t played with him in ages except in Motian’s band. The projects you’re talking about are now years old and its rare a band stays together that long.
PD: McHenry’s quartet with Motian seems to have some staying power though.
BM: That’s true. We only seem to play at he Vanguard these days, but it’s great.
PD: What about Rebecca Martin’s band?
BM: I haven’t seen Rebecca in a long time. Some of these projects have fallen by the wayside. I subbed for Steve Cardenas in that band anyway, and then she used both of us on the record.
PD: If someone said let’s finance a rock band with four guys from the New York Downtown scene I’d pick you, Bleckmann, Jim Black and Skuli, which happens to be the lineup on “No Boat”.
BM: A rock band?
PD: Have you ever had thoughts in that direction – to do that type of a thing?
BM: Not seriously. You know what? If I did a rock band I’d play Cream tunes and Led Zeppelin tunes and I’d do it for fun. I’d play my Strat. But no, I am not going to write alternative rock tunes or something like that.
PD: I guess what I’m trying to say is that a song like OK Chorale [OK, Chorale excerpt] from “No Boat” got played on the radio, it could sit comfortably next to a Radiohead, etc.
BM: Maybe there’s a possible market that I’m not aware of (laughs).
PD: Do you ever play totally free?
BM: Yeah. Sometimes Theo and I do that. I have done a few gigs with Theo and Satoshi Takeishi where that’s the concept. We’ve had a couple of great gigs like that, and of course, a couple where we totally fell flat. I did a recording with Bill McHenry where we just played free duos. We did it back in 2000 and I’d really like to get that record out because it came out nicely – I’d like to manufacture it and sell it on the web or something.
PD: Do other bands play the toughest music you’ve played or is that in your own band?
BM: Actually, John O’Gallagher’s music is pretty hard. The thing about my music is that since it’s mine it’s demanding on a certain level, but I’m used to it. The thing that’s hard about stepping into somebody else’s world is that it’s unfamiliar territory and in turn, John has some very specific ideas in combining rhythm and harmony, and they’re not ideas I’ve dealt with that much, and that’s why they’re challenging.
PD: I’d like to ask you about your influences and how they get incorporated into your music.
BM: As I’ve mentioned, I don’t know if I can tell you how I incorporate influences, or anything else, into my music. But some influences are modern classical music, Bach, a lot of Coltrane, and all the major guitar players. I want to mention Ralph Towner – especially his stuff with Oregon, the Solstice records, the record Batik with him and DeJohnnette, and the one with Garbarek and the Wind Harp, called Dis. Also, Egberto Gismonti has been an influence- his work on both guitar and piano. But it’s hard for me to make direct connections.
PD: What do you think needs to happen for a bit more attention?
BM: One thing is you’ve got to tour. It’s a given. The CD’s gotten quite a bit of good press already, including a critics choice by Ben Ratliff in the New York Times and a radio piece with Nate Chinen, and that was only the first month. It’s now up to me to somehow take advantage of the attention and make something happen.