Ben Monder on Texture, Ambience, and Guesting on Bowie's 'Blackstar'

March 2, 2016

Every generation has its heroes. For Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Bill Frisell it was Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery. Metheny, et al, in turn influenced the current crop of jazz guitar stars, like Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder. Monder continues the tradition by being an inspiration to yet another generation of guitarists, who devour his solo recordings and performances with Marc Johnson, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, Guillermo Klein, and Maria Schneider.

Monder’s original music and sideman work inspire awe through finger-stretching chord voicings and blistering legato runs. But his latest recording, Amorphae [ECM] demonstrates a different side of the New Yorker by exploring free-form ambience and texture in solo outings, duos, and trios. Monder was also one of the musicians invited to play on David Bowie’s challenging “avant jazz” release, Blackstar.

What can you tell us about working on the David Bowie record?

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin and I met David when he collaborated with [composer/orchestrator] Maria Schneider on his previous record. He hired Donny and his band for the new record. I play in Donny’s band and I guess they thought a few tracks would sound better with lead guitar. I was there for the final week of recording. We all played live for a few songs and I had one overdub day at the end of the week.

Did you get any specific direction from Bowie?

I got very little in the way of specific direction. I got demos of a couple of the tunes before I went in, so I had some idea of what I was going to play. We were allowed to be creative and come up with our own parts. It was a very supportive and open atmosphere.

What was your gear setup?

I was going stereo out of the Lexicon into my ’65 Blackface Deluxe and my Princeton, which I think is a ’68. I have an Aguilar octave pedal, and an MXR Carbon Copy. I have a couple of Walrus Audio pedals: a Deep Six compressor and a Mayflower distortion. I also use a Robert Keeley modified ProCo Rat. I use both distortions, either one at a time or both together. The Mayflower is a little less saturated. I sometimes use a Fulltone DejáVibe along with the distortion, and an Ernie Ball volume pedal.

How do you think your generation’s “guitarists differ from the one that spawned Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Bill Frisell?

The guys you mentioned heavily influenced us, but we just had more things to draw from. There was a lot of jazz education available to us.

How do you go about developing your unique chord voicings?

It sounds like a joke, but sometimes I just set my fingers down and see where they land. Also, a long time ago, I went through Ted Greene’s Chord Chemistry. There are a ton of chords in there and I would learn four or five different voicings from each group or type of chord. A year later, I would learn four or five more. Another thing is seeing which open strings are available. You can also build chords on various intervals other than thirds. By combining those types of intervals within a key you get all kinds of voicings.

When you play fingerstyle with a footstool, it seems like a classical approach. Have you studied classical guitar?

I took a few lessons when I was a kid, but never excelled or pursued it. Whatever classical style I have is more or less homegrown. There are things I hear and want to play that require that kind of technique. As far as playing with a footstool, I just can’t reach certain chords without having my guitar neck in a certain relationship with my body.

Your soloing often incorporates sweep picking and other rock techniques. Were you into rock at one point?

I grew up learning rock long before I discovered jazz, but the sweep picking is not from listening to metal bands. It comes from Chuck Wayne. His term was “consecutive picking,” and others call it “economy picking.” I didn’t do it before I started studying with him. He believed any time you change strings, and are going in the same direction as the next string, you just follow that direction.

Some of your playing sounds like John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.” Is that something you are conscious of?

I didn’t think it was possible to emulate it on the guitar, but I tried. I put on some distortion because it sounds more like a tenor sax and makes it a little easier to play. One thing about Trane’s playing is that, for all the technical and theoretical knowledge he has, there is a beauty to it. He talked about finding the lyrical line through the superimposed changes.

Your own music seems to be moving away from linear soloing into a more textural direction.

Part of it is I am never happy with any solos I play on records. If I reduce the amount of soloing to nearly zero, I won’t have to worry about that. [Laughs.] That is partially true, but I have been moving more towards composing long-form material where there is not a lot of solo space. I try to write shorter forms that are more improvisation based, but they never end up that way. I keep writing and all of a sudden I have another composed piece. These days, I usually have to be playing in other people’s bands in order to solo, but I might very well do a head-solo-head record in the near future.

How did Amorphae evolve?

We booked a trio session with Paul Motian, Ben Street, and me in 2010, where we did two days of mostly standards. Paul and I also did some free improvisations. We abandoned the standards but thought we could build on the free duos with Paul. I also recorded some improvised solo stuff that was going to be relatively slow. Every track is improvised, except for “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” though we took liberties there as well. This record finally documents the more ethereal, ambient approach I like.

You often work without a bass player. What is it you enjoy about that?

It frees me up interpret what the melodic instrument is saying. You lose the propulsion and support of the bass, but you gain freedom.

Do you do anything to increase the low end on your guitar?

I have that Aguilar Octamizer octave pedal, which is supposed to be for the bass but works well for guitar.

What were you using for a reverb and delay on the new record?

The same thing I have used for 25 years, a Lexicon LXP-1, though not the same one. Jim Williams of Audio Upgrades modified it. He makes the decay more natural and gradual, and it seems more transparent and less muddy. The delay is the MXR Carbon Copy. I also had whatever reverb they added in the studio. There are layers of reverb on the songs.

You have been playing an Ibanez 335-style guitar for a long time. Which model is that?

It’s a 1982 Artist AS-50. When I was in Queens College, somebody put an ad up on a bulletin board selling it for $300. There was a picture and I thought it looked cool. I have been playing it since 1983 and it does what I want it to do.

What other gear do you rely on?

For strings I use D’Addario .013s. I get separate unwound .020s and put them on as the G string. I haven’t really experimented with many brands. I figure strings are strings and cables are cables. It’s not going to make you play any better, or sound so much better that somebody is going to notice when they are listening through a computer. I use D’Andrea 358 heavy picks. For live playing I usually use a 50-Watt Music Man amp because it projects. I wouldn’t use it for recording, but live it cuts through.

You have worked with some of the great leaders in jazz, like Maria Schneider and Paul Motian. What have you learned from them?

From Maria, I learned orchestral color. She was a master at getting textures out of an ensemble. She also wrote really well for guitar, which is unusual for a non-guitarist. Her voicings and lines are very playable and interesting. Paul Motian had made some of the most important music in my life prior to my meeting him. The Clean Cut label records and the trio records with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell made me realize there was a whole universe of sound I hadn’t imagined possible. When I played with Paul, he gave everyone as much freedom as they needed, but still had a strong vision and personality. For him, it was all about being the master of the moment and the master of freedom. I don’t mean playing free without changes, but being as spontaneous as possible.

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