Ben Monder

A very interesting interview...

Do you remember your first jazz record ?

I think it was Joe Pass’ “Virtuoso”. I remember being able to recognize the melodies, as I was starting to learn some standards (I was about 15), but in between the first and last theme I had no idea what was going on. I had no conception of form and harmony - it all sounded kind of random to me (and this is a fairly straight ahead record). It occurs to me that most people probably hear jazz this way, which is a rather alarming realization.

What drew you to play guitar ? How did you become a musician ?

I started out playing violin, as my father was an amateur violinist. I never really enjoyed it and had to be forced to practice. Meanwhile, there was a cheap nylon string guitar lying around the house that I think my mother had bought for some reason. I started playing around on it and found it much more agreeable, or at least less uncomfortable than the violin. Plus, the music I enjoyed was the rock that was on the radio at the time. With the exception of David LaFlamme, this music was not centered on the violin. I took a guitar class in 7th grade, and I remember getting through the entire semester’s workbook in two days and spending the rest of the year helping other kids tune their guitars.

Which are the musicians and the experiments which influenced you ? Do you have a favorite musician ?

My earliest influences were my father’s classical record collection, the soundtrack to the movie 2001 (I’m still a Ligeti nut), and most of all my mother’s Beatles records. After a prolonged rock phase and a transition through fusion, I fell in love with jazz and tried to absorb as much as much of it as I could. I don’t have a favorite musician, but I have favorite music in many genres, primarily jazz, classical, rock, and Hindustani.

What do you think about the state of jazz today ? What direction do you feel it should go in the future ?

The state of jazz today is a sorry one, although of course there are always brilliant musicians doing great things. For one thing, there is a malignant edifice of jazz education that seems to be growing exponentially, and has little relevance to anything outside itself. It has codified and formulated the jazz “language” in a more or less generic way, and has instilled this esthetic in thousands of impressionable students who come to value a watered down and distant simulacrum of something that was once vital.

There is also a curious paradox – while there is relatively little public support for this music there are yearly thousands of students entering jazz programs, ostensibly under the impression that they will somehow earn a living from this music. I think the pattern establishes itself when these same students graduate, realize how hard and unrewarding it is, and eventually find jobs at universities, continuing the cycle. There will always be the “real thing” however, so all is not and will never be lost.

As to the second part of the question, I have absolutely no opinion on where jazz should go. Who am I to say ? First of all it is far too vague a term to define. Jazz has splintered off into so many subgenres, who can say where “it” will go except to say that it will continue to expand and take on other influences.

What are your current projects ? Who are your musical partners nowadays ?

I have three basic projects that I’m currently playing with, all somewhat related. I have a quartet that is represented by my last two records, which has been dormant now for a year or so. This includes electric bass, drums, and voice.

I also have a duo with the vocalist from the quartet, Theo Bleckmann, which performs pieces by both of us, covers, and is freer in concept than the quartet. Finally there is a trio, with which I have been working the most, which consists of acoustic bass and drums. It would be nice to work more with all of these groups.

Is there any young (or not!) musician you have recently (or not!) discovered you want to talk about ?

Yes, I’d like to mention a trio I saw recently, comprised of Jacob Sacks (piano), Dan Weiss (drums), and Thomas Morgan (bass). They really knocked me out. Their concept of time was very elastic yet very precise – their control of this element is amazing. It is a real band that is doing something original, pushing boundaries, and performing it all in a musical and sympathetic way.

Which are the best places to listen to jazz in New York ? Which are your favorites ?

My favorite clubs are the Vanguard and the 55 Bar, both as a listener and a performer. Especially the Vanguard – the ghosts in that place, far from being intimidating, help you to reach your best. And the 55 Bar has gone from something of a den of iniquity twenty years ago to one of the best listening rooms in the city.

What kind of music do you listen to nowadays ?

These days I mostly listen to classical music. I try to digest one piece at a time, and really get to know it through repeated listenings. At the moment I’m working on Schoenberg’s fourth string quartet. It’s sometimes hard to find time for concentrated listening these days. I recently got to know the Webern Symphony, which was easy because it’s only about nine minutes long.

Do you have any future projects in mind ? Next concerts ? Next records ? Will you play in Europe soon ?

My future plans are to work more with the original projects I mentioned earlier. I’m actually in Europe at the moment with Tim Ries, the saxophonist, but don’t have imminent plans to return with my band. At this point my next trip to Europe will be in about two weeks to teach a jazz seminar in Denmark, then in November with the saxophonist John O’Gallagher, and December with Maria Schneider.

I plan to do a trio record next, mixing originals and other tunes. Theo and I have a duo recording (with Satoshi Takeishi playing percussion on a few tunes) coming out early next year on Songlines.

Interview by Pierre Villeret