Blindfold Test: Ben Monder


Ben Monder

(Photo: Steven Sussman)

He might not be a household name among casual listeners, but it would be hard to find a single jazz musician who does not hold guitarist Ben Monder in the highest regard. Some might remember him as the guitarist for David Bowie’s 2016 swan song opus Blackstar, but Monder’s eclecticism runs the gamut from free-jazz collaborations to contemporary post-fusion. Regardless of style or mode, all of his music is undergirded with a deep sense of harmonic wisdom and an undeniable emotivity. DownBeat awarded Monder four stars for his latest offering, Day After Day (Sunnyside 2019), an expansive, two-disc revelation that showcases his brilliant solo renditions of jazz standards and familiar refrains and wickedly clever trio arrangements of rock and pop songs. Monder commented on the following musical selections via video chat from his home in Brooklyn.

Marc Johnson “Porch Swing” (The Sound Of Summer Running, Verve, 1998) Johnson, bass; Bill Frisell, guitar; Pat Metheny, guitar; Joey Baron, drums. Sounds like there’s two guitarists, and it sounds like one of them might be Bill Frisell. That sound evokes a lot of really strong feelings in me. I like this solo [Metheny’s] a lot as well. I don’t recognize this player, though. I’m trying to think, “Who did Bill do duo records with?” Is it Pat Metheny? That was sort of an uncharacteristically clean sound for him. Now, in retrospect, the feel was definitely him. That was great. Now that I think about it, I remember they did a record together, but I obviously never heard it. [afterwards] That’s embarrassing, because I actually did a two-guitar gig with [Johnson] and [Kurt Rosenwinkel] playing the music from that record. [laughs] Sorry, Marc.

Billy Cobham/George Duke Band “Ivory Tattoo” (“Live” On Tour In Europe, Atlantic, 1976) Cobham, drums; Duke, keyboards; Alphonso Johnson, bass; John Scofield guitar. Is this John Scofield with Billy Cobham? John is kind of the perfect person to play this type of fusion. He’s got the bebop influence, but you also hear the deep blues influence. John’s another person I used to follow around when I was much younger. It’s great to hear that stuff.

Larry Coryell/Emily Remler “Six Beats, Six Strings” (Together, Concord, 1985) Coryell, guitar; Remler, guitar. When I was a teenager, I had a revelatory experience with Larry Coryell. I was listening to the radio. It was an Eleventh House concert, and I was like, “This guitar playing, I’ve never heard anything like it.” And then he came out and did an acoustic thing for an encore. It blew my mind. I started buying all of his records. I’m not getting who the [other] person is. It’s somebody who plays with his fingers. [afterwards] I never would have gotten that, because I know her playing from much more straightahead contexts. That was a great track. I’ll have to explore that record.

Anthony Wilson “Theme From Chinatown” (Jack Of Hearts, Groove Note, 2009) Wilson, guitar; Larry Goldings, organ; Jim Keltner, drums. Beautiful sound, very pure. Beautiful interpretation of this melody. Look at how much space the organ player’s leaving. You don’t get that every day. Look how the drummer’s [playing], he’s coming from almost a free-jazz background, barely playing time. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.There are these bursts of activity from the guitar, but in such a restrained and tasteful way. I appreciate that. You got me on this one. [afterwards] I feel bad for not getting that, but [Wilson] sounded great. Really mature playing and really strong. I clearly haven’t checked him out enough. Calling Jim Keltner a free-jazz player is maybe the dumbest thing I’ve ever said.

Gary Versace “Anchors” (All For Now, Steeplechase, 2020) Versace, piano; Jay Anderson, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums. From the sound of it, I’m thinking it’s a ’60s recording — is that wrong? Is this Jason Moran? There’s the [Lennie] Tristano influences coming through. Total control of the time. Maybe like a Herbie Nichols influence … Sullivan Fortner? Orrin Evans? Was that Gary? I didn’t even realize he put out a piano record last year. Holy shit, that sounded great!

Julian Lage “Tomorrow Is The Question” (Love Hurts, Mack Avenue, 2019) Lage, guitar; Jorge Roeder, bass; Dave King, drums. Is it Julian Lage? He’s a joyful player, and the guitar is like a natural extension of his body. I like the looseness of how he was interpreting the time, even though he has a really strong swing feel. He seems really free, rhythmically. And I like the slightly overdriven amp sound he was getting.

Remy LeBoeuf “Imperfect Paradise” (Light As A Word, Outside In Music, 2019) LeBoeuf, alto saxophone; Walter Smith III, tenor saxophone; Charles Altura, guitar; Aaron Parks, keyboard; Matt Brewer, bass; Peter Kronreif, drums. Is it Charles Altura? Well, he’s an astounding player. There’s a lot of information, but I love the contour of the lines. Even though there are a lot of notes, it’s very lyrical. Great feel, very fluid. I’ve seen him play. He’s an amazing improviser. Super relaxed. I’ve met him only once — he definitely exuded calmness, very nice. Great tune.

Ted Greene “Send In The Clowns” (Solo Guitar, Art of Life, 1977) Greene, guitar. This is Ted Greene himself, right? This is such an important record for me — I got it when it first came out. The reason why I was just a little unsure is that it sounds so much better … clearer than the version I have. Maybe it’s been remastered or something. So, at first, I thought that maybe someone had learned this exact arrangement and rerecorded it. That’s why I said, “Oh, it’s Ted Greene himself.” Absolutely one of the greatest guitarists to have ever lived. Really a genius. He can switch keys at any time. He’s got that inner counterpoint. He’s very aware of bass movement, almost like a classical approach, but it’s all spontaneous. And he has such a beautiful sound and a great feel. [Greene] was very much in touch with his sound. So beautiful. DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.

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