Monday, November 30, 2015

CD Review: Ben Monder - Amorphae

Thanksgiving, a story about Tim Berne and Steve Byram's book (for JazzTimes), a story for City Paper to preview Billy Harper's show next week, getting a cold, drinking to make the cold go away (it worked!), not to mention the fact that I'm actually going to be working again (albeit part-time) starting tomorrow... the preparations and anxieties all kept me from blogging lately. But this album has been stuck in my drain trap lately....

Ben Monder

I once saw Ben Monder play guitar with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and was struck by the fact that he was playing at a low volume, yet the sound produced by his guitar sounded really full, as if he was playing it a lot louder. Maybe it could be called visceral understatement. It was intense without rattling the skull, or disrupting the flow of Schneider's large ensemble.

For that reason, he fits naturally with Paul Motian's loose-limbed approach to the drums wherein a minimum of wrist action can have an overwhelming effect. Two of the eight tracks on Amorphae come from a duo session the guitarist and drummer made in 2010, a year before Motian died. The rest of the album pairs Monder up with drummer Andrew Cyrille on four tracks, two of which add Pete Rende on synthesizer, and two other tracks feature Monder on his own.

Thematically, it flows together, with smooth transitions between tracks. Sonically, it feels less like an album affiliated with jazz than one aligned with space rock, in particular one that could be heard on the label Kranky. (This similarity has cropped up with a few other albums that have come out this year.) Melodies exist here, carved out of chords that ring out for measure upon measure, if it's even worth counting bar lines. Often, the sound of fingers or plectrum on strings isn't heard, just the sustained tone that results from this kind of attack. The tracks with Rende really move into the atmospherics because the wide, reverberating sound alludes to tones bouncing through an intergalactic sky. Cyrille is here, gently tapping in the background, acting as the cable that keeps you attached to the ground. It's loose and slow-moving, but it's also gorgeous.

Of the Motian tunes, "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" opens with a loud powerchord, a wake-up call after Monder's Frisellian solo "Tendrils." Like "Zythum," the second of the trio pieces, it slowly unfolds, giving the song from Oklahoma a brand new coat of paint, before building to a roaring climax, literally: Monder builds up a layer of chords and shrieks which sound like a lear jet, with some bass notes that overload and threaten the speakers. While it's close to space rock, none of that kind music has ever been this expansive and lush.

"Triffids," the other track with Motian, is slightly more conventional, sounds a little closer to the drummer's work with guitarist Bill Frisell. Despite its brevity (less than three minutes) it offers a good deal of shifting dynamics and attacks to the fretboard. If only it was longer.

Monder has a habit of plucking sounds and letting them just hang in the air until they decay. Non-guitar playing listeners might find it tedious. But he creates suspense with his melodies and laconic phrasing, making it hard to turn the ears away from it, even when he might be noodling.

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