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Tunis: Ben Monder’s Guitar Solo Work Comes to Lexington

Like any great magician, Ben Monder saves his wildest trick as a parting shot.

The setting is the New York guitarist’s current album, “Day After Day,” a double-disc offering that shakes up the well-utilized concept of the standards record. The first disc is just Monder on his own offering a set of generations-old gems by Henry Mancini, Johnny Mandel and Burt Bacharach that might suggest – on paper, at least – that Monder is an immovable traditionalist. One listen to his distinctive phrasing and lyrical twists quickly dispels that notion.

The second disc is a more personally curated collection of trio takes on vintage pop works by Bob Dylan, George Harrison and early Fleetwood Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, among others. On first listen, the collar grabber of the bunch is a version of the “Goldfinger” theme that pares down John Barry’s orchestral might to a tough-knuckled but melodically faithful brawl that is very much rock ‘n’ roll. You can almost see James Bond and Odd Job going at each other as the groove grows.

Then the last word oozes in – a version of the album’s title tune, a 1972 radio hit by the British pop band Badfinger that completely departs from any musical strategy the album had previously followed.

The sounds enter like distant sirens – echoing at first before gathering into an orchestral ambience that is alternately ominous and warm. The music continues to move in a circular pattern, growing more spacious and intense the closer it gets. Once it formally arrives, the wash of guitar chimes with a thundering intent that surrounds you. Then, as the cyclone passes, tossing one last sonic cry at us in its wake, the tune and the album fade to black.

Somewhere, in that rich, layered fascination, the chorus melody of the Pete Ham-composed tune is offered, but it exists only as a brief wisp of a soundscape that quickly sheds its form before leaping into the squall.

“I had no intention of actually covering that tune,” said a slightly jet-lagged Monder by phone the day after arriving back in New York, following a few weeks of concerts and master classes in Europe. “I was at the end of this session and just wanted to play some random ambient music.

“My guitar broke right at the end of the session. This was during one of the trio sessions for the album. It was no longer functional by the end of the day, so I borrowed what was almost like a toy guitar in the studio. It was like a miniature Les Paul. But I was just determined to do some ambient music as a counterbalance to all the trio tracks we had recorded. I did that thing of turning all my equipment up to ten and then just kind of went for it.

“In the spur of the moment, that melody occurred to me. I’ve played that tune before in a trio setting, so I knew it. But I never thought I would do it like this. I just figured if I could include the melody, it would justify all this being on the record. It would be another cover tune. Technically.”

Photo Credit: Ben Monder by John Rogers

Second fiddle
Monder, who is heading to Lexington for a solo concert that will serve as the November presentation of the Origins Jazz Series, has been a highly prolific and respected member of the vast New York City jazz community for over three decades as both a leader and sideman. He has recorded with scores of jazz luminaries, including Grammy-winning orchestrator Maria Schneider (with whom he still collaborates), saxophonist Donny McCaslin and the profoundly influential drummer and bandleader Paul Motian.

While guitar was not Monder’s first instrument, it was the first one that truly spoke to him.

“I took up violin after my dad,” Monder said. “He was an amateur player. I never really enjoyed violin very much, though. It was like a duty. Then I found a classical guitar, an inexpensive classical guitar, in my parent’s closet. It was much less uncomfortable to play than the violin, so I gravitated to the guitar more and more. I only found out recently that the reason my parents even had a guitar was that my mother was taking classical lessons while she was pregnant with me. I must have been hearing that music even then.”

Jazz records by guitarists like Barney Kessel (especially “Soaring,” a briskly paced 1976 trio album devoted primarily to standards) and Jim Hall (the exquisite trio record “Live!” from 1975) helped establish a musical vocabulary. But it was a vanguard work from the preceding decade, John Coltrane’s immortal “A Love Supreme,” that got Monder digging past the groove.

“That was a big one,” he said. “‘A Love Supreme’ really made me decide that I needed to dive into the mystery of jazz. I may have come to jazz anyway. When I decided to formally start taking guitar lessons, I was studying from a jazz teacher because that was the teacher that was available. It wasn’t like I necessarily wanted to take jazz lessons. But I grew to love the music itself. I enjoyed the challenge of it.”

Few artists, though, had greater impact in the development of Monder’s musical voice than the great Motian. Infatuated with records by the drummer’s famed trio (with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano) and his equally lauded quintet (which added a second saxophonist, Billy Drewes, along with bassist Ed Schuller to the trio roster), Monder would eventually join one of Motian’s numerous bands to record three albums between 2001 and 2006.

“Paul Motian started helping my voice long before I ever met him. His first quintet record, ‘Psalm’ (from 1982), was just a total sound world that was unprecedented. If you listen, all of his records have that personal element to it. It’s hard to pin down, but they all sound like Paul Motian records. Even with completely different personnel, everyone is in tune with the sound he has and works towards realizing it.”

Photo Credit: Ben Monder by Jesse Chun

Bowie and Blackstar
While New York has always been a jazz metropolis, it also became a land of self-imposed exile for one of rock music’s most daring journeymen. In 2015, with no interest in living the rock daydream any further, David Bowie scoured the city’s music haunts with the idea of making a new recording aided by jazz musicians. The songs he had composed for the album were still largely pop in design, but were executed with more of a hybrid sound. Bowie had just come off recording a single with Maria Schneider’s orchestra that led to the enlistment of Donny McCaslin. That, in turn, brought Monder to the recording sessions that gave us “Blackstar.” And that, unbeknownst to all parties involved with its making, would be Bowie’s final studio album. The rock titan died on January 10, 2016 – two days after the release of “Blackstar.”

“The tunes David wrote were very specific with a very clear vision of what he wanted,” Monder said. “At the same time, they were easy to adapt to. It never felt like I had to step into somebody’s else ideas. “When I say ‘specific,’ I guess I meant there weren’t that many ways to interpret the parts, but I still had a lot of freedom in how I was able to add things. Also, Tony Visconti (Bowie’s longtime producer) had lots of ideas.

“There was one day where I went in the studio without the other studio musicians and we came up with parts for almost all of the tunes I was involved with. I had free reign to add layer upon layer. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, we would just throw it out.”

So for a full day, it was just Visconti in the studio with Monder?

“Yes. And David.”

A studio day alongside David Bowie and Tony Visconti? Seriously? How enviable a work environment was that?

“It was a lot of fun.”

What stands as a colossal understatement is indicative of the earnest soft sell Monder gives his music. From the far-ranging stylistic reach of “Day After Day” to the career victory lap that was “Blackstar,” his playing speaks for itself in a manner that welcomes anyone mindful of musical tradition but with ears open enough to not be anchored to it.

“You know, I have no idea how many people have heard my music or what they think of it. I get enough feedback to feel like I’m reaching a few people and that’s fine. If nobody responded, that would be a problem. But if I can reach just a few people where the music really means something to them, then that’s very gratifying.”

Ben Monder performs at 7:30 p.m. on November 22 at the Lexington Friends Meeting House (Quakers), 649 Price Ave. Tickets are $20 at originsjazz.org.

Title Image Photo Credit: Ben Monder by John Rogers

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Kelle Brings the Jolly to Origins Jazz Series

It was the middle of her set at Lexington’s Tee Dee’s music club. Jazz vocalist Jessie Laine Powell was, as usual, holding the room in the palm of her hand, but she was fighting off a cold and needed a brief break to let her voice recover. Over to stage right stood a woman Jessie had just met earlier in the day as a fellow panelist at a Women in Jazz discussion hosted by the Origins Jazz Series at the Lyric Theater. She said she could sing. And she had brought along a ukelele. Jessie invited her up to the mic to spell her for a song. We, in the audience, had no idea what to expect.

Kelle Jolly

Then, something like this happened…

Kelle Jolly performing at the 47th Jubilee Festival

Kelle Jolly brought the house to its feet with a performance of Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues and everyone hoped the Origins folks would book her for a show of her own.

They did. And it’s coming. January 26 at Tee Dee’s (info & tickets here).

It turns out that Kelle Jolly has serious Soul Jazz credentials of her own. She is into her fifth year as host of Jazz Jam with Kelle Jolly on Knoxville public radio station WUOT. There are plans for a tv taping in April to celebrate. And she participates in conferences and gatherings around the country that focus on art, rural/urban arts and community building.

“A couple of years ago, I would host singer jam sessions. I would hire the rhythm section. Singers would come with charts and sing,” Kelle told me in a text exchange. “Some went from doing the jams to performing locally.”

Kelle records and sings with her husband, saxophonist Will Boyd. He’ll join her onstage at Tee Dee’s on the 26th along with drummer Kenneth Brown, David Becher on bass and keyboardist Jason Day.

Will Boyd

“Our set will include freedom songs, spirituals, original songs from the album Will Boyd Live at the Red Piano Lounge, and jazz standards,” Jolly said. “We play traditional African American music spirituals, jazz, blues, and soul. Our set is about freedom. Jazz is freedom.”

Yes, indeed it is.

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Clive Pohl Interviews Chris Potter Part II

As the Origins Jazz Series and the Lyric Theater get ready to host jazz saxophonist Chris Potter, here’s an opportunity to become acquainted with this the Chicago-born artist, the youngest musician ever to win Denmark’s Jazzpar Prize, the world’s largest international and annual jazz award. Potter’s discography now includes 16 albums as a leader and sideman appearances on over 100 more. He has also performed or recorded with such leading jazz figures as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Ray Brown, John Scofield and Dave Douglas, as well as with the Mingus Big Band

Lexington architect and jazz artist Clive Pohl caught up with Potter only hours after his return from a European tour. If you haven’t already, check out part one of this three-part series. Here’s part two, loaded with opportunities to listen. Part three is coming your way in a few days –  in time to be fully informed for the April 22 concert.

Clive: I understand that you played guitar and piano as a young musician. Is that right?

Chris: Yeah. Especially the piano. And I’ve used the piano a lot in my writing and in terms of our music.

Clive: I wondered about that. And so, a tune like The Shades (on The Sirens), that’s a wonderful prepared piano piece. Is that done with David Virelles?

Chris: Yeah. That was with David and Craig (Taborn). I can’t remember, you know, ‘cause I think that one is purely improvised. I think they were gonna do something as an introduction to another song and that’s when they started playing. And it didn’t end up working as well as an introduction to a song but I just loved that moment so much I thought, oh yeah, we’ve got to put that on there.

Clive: Yeah. It really is a special little moment. You always wonder the degree to which these things are composed versus improvised. In fact, you spoke to that a little bit relative to Imaginary Cities and your desire to blur the lines there. Before we get into those recent records, I’m curious about the anticipation (of recording for ECM) because I don’t believe you had recorded for ECM prior to The Sirens. Is that correct?

Chris: That was the first album that I had done as a leader for ECM. I had appeared on another ECM record with Dave Holland, Steve Swallow and Paul Motion. But that was my first one as a leader and that was my first one actually working with Manfred Eicher in the studio.

Clive: So, that makes me want to ask about the extent to which knowing you were going to make an ECM record might have upped the ante with respect to your preparation and your composition.

Chris: Not exactly because I had already written all the music and performed with the group before I had been in touch with Manfred about recording it. I mean, the way I remember it, I think Sarah Humphries who works for ECM, came down to the Vanguard when we were doing that music and she mentioned this to Manfred and it kind of grew out of that. So, that was already the kind of concept with the music I wanted to do and even the actual feelings were pretty much done by the time I was in touch with Manfred about it. I mean, it was a fortuitous thing because the direction of that music I felt like really did belong on ECM. That was a good spot for it in terms of the aesthetic that I was looking for and Manfred’s aesthetic sensibilities. So yeah, that was a fortuitous circumstance.

Clive: And you began working right around that time with (Pat) Metheny’s Unity band.

Chris: It was around that time. Yes.

Clive: Did his writing have an influence on yours at that time or was it reciprocal?

Chris: Yeah. I had been listening to Pat’s records since I was a teenager, so I was influenced by him definitely.

Chris Potter on Playing with Pat Metheny

Clive: The second ECM record, Imaginary Cities, is of particular interest to me particularly as we talk about Chief Seattle and the idea of sustainability and treating the planet with respect… I’m looking to you to verify that there is a similar kind of vibe giving rise to the Imaginary Cities four-part Suite: our built environment breaking down and “Rebuilding.” Is that accurate?

Chris: Right. Yeah. That was the frame of mind. Of course, that was definitely written with those ideas in mind beforehand. You know, the idea of what I was gonna be writing about even though it’s very abstract and it’s instrumental music. It was those kinds of ideas – the way we’re living these days and the movement of a great majority of people to cities and the way we are living – is it..

Clive: …sustainable?

Chris: Yeah, is it sustainable and is it really creating a quality of life that is as healthy as it could be for us? I think a lot of us would say no – maybe there is a better way to do it. I mean, music, especially instrumental music, is a very abstract form. So, it isn’t like I’m laying out some specific manifesto of exactly how it would be done, but maybe there was a bit of a vision of another way to live. I would say that the titles of the movements do reflect that idea.

Clive: I’m going to jump to both Imaginary Cities and to The Dreamer is the Dream, which is your most recent record. It strikes me that Imaginary Cities was a very ambitious undertaking with a lot of arrangements and a string quartet and so forth and then perhaps The Dreamer is the Dream is scaling back to a simpler instrumentation, is that accurate? Was it a deliberate simplification?

Chris: Yeah, and also, both The Sirens and Imaginary Cities had a programmatic thing where The Sirens was written after reading The Odyssey and we’ve already gone through the implications of Imaginary Cities. But with The Dreamer is the Dream, you know, “let me just write some tunes and call a band, and we’ll go out on the road, and we’ll play these tunes, and we’ll see which ones work and we’ll record it.” So yeah, it was a bit of a return to a normal state of things. Maybe I’ll just take a break from that – not that I won’t ever choose to work that way again, but I thought it was time for more of a, just a band record.

Clive: The whole band is great. They’re younger players aren’t they?  They’re in their early 30’s?

Chris: Yeah, Joe (Martin) is my age. Joe is someone that I first met probably around the same time I met Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner and Brad Mehdau and all those guys, so I’ve known him a long time. But yes, Marcus and David are definitely from a younger generation and have a different point of view than I do, which I find very, very valuable and it’s also just great to see such extremely talented and dedicated musicians coming up. It provides a new dose of inspiration… now that I’ve been doing this a few years. It’s nice to hear some really advanced things coming at me from a different angle than what I’ve heard.

Clive: David Virelles’ harmonic structures in some of those tunes are just beautiful. And I hear David’s Cuban influence. The other thing I hear with several tunes, obviously, you’ve got the tune Ilimba, and you play the Ilimba.

Chris: It’s a thumb piano from East Africa.

Clive: I’m hearing some of those East African influences, but I’m also hearing on the tune Sky on Imaginary Cities a really clear Indian line and then, you know, obviously some Cuban influence with David Virelles of course. So, you mentioned wanting to get back to the simplest palate and yet there’s a lot going on there.

Chris: I guess yeah ‘cause there’s a lot to think about. There’s a lot to be inspired by!

Clive: Yes. I’m really appreciative of your making these records for us to hear. One last question about your melodic line and this is a stretch, but I’m gonna ask it anyway; you sometimes grab a melodic idea and repeat it a few times. I think it was the tune Sonic Anomaly; might this be a conscious or unconscious reference to the preaching tradition of the black church?

Chris: I don’t know the exact point in that song you’re talking about but yeah, I’d say that is an influence definitely. Some of the first music that I got into was the blues and then the gospel is another side of a similar thing, you know. This was one of the great things about growing up in South Carolina, I think I got a dose that I might not have gotten otherwise. I remember as a teenager doing gospel gigs and the environment just blew me away to actually be there and feel the energy of it and the way that it builds up, and builds up, and builds up. I think that’s one strand that’s always informed jazz music and gives it a strong character that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Of course, that’s where jazz is coming from – that’s where America is coming from; it’s this crazy mix with this very sad history, but the mixing of these different cultures and the way that they come together is something very special and alive. Yeah. The gospel influence, the blues influence, I mean, as abstract and intellectual as jazz can get – and it can go in any direction and be great because it can absorb so many different things – but for me, the way that I think about music and my particular upbringing and the time that I grew up in, the musicians that I’ve met, if it doesn’t have something of that blues feel somewhere in it, it is not as compelling to me.

Clive: Yeah, you mentioned our tragic history, and the whole purpose of the music was to transcend and rise above that.

Chris: Yeah. Of course. Sometimes beautiful things come out of things that are not beautiful at all.

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Clive Pohl Interviews Chris Potter: Part I

 Down Beat called him “One of the most studied (and copied) saxophonists on the planet.” Chris Potter, also an accomplished composer and formidable bandleader, will bring all of that to the stage of the Lyric Theater on the evening of April 22nd – the latest installment of the Origins Jazz Series.

Lexington architect, musician, and composer Clive Pohl caught up with Potter only hours after Potter’s return from a European tour. They had a wonderful, wide-ranging conversation and we’re sharing it in three parts so that by the time you take your seat on the 22nd, you’ll have a full appreciation of artist and music.

Part one:

Clive: I’m curious about your family and the musical environment you grew up in.

Chris: Well, no one in my family was a professional musician or even an amateur musician, but they were big fans of music. My father’s father, my grandfather on his side, was a big fan of classical music and listened to it all the time. So, my father had a familiarity with that and he had all kinds of records around the house along the lines of Beethoven and Brahms, and Igor Stravinsky, and Bartok and, you know, a wide range of that music with a bunch of other kinds of music. There was Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and there was blues music from Chicago. There was, you know, a few other things like, I remember a record of Gamelan music and music from Greece and also a few jazz records. So, that’s how I discovered the music, Miles Davis records, Dave Brubeck records, Charles Lloyd. I was a huge fan of the Beatles – I had their records as well. I discovered them when I was 6 or 7. When I was 9 or 10 is when I really discovered jazz and decided I wanted to see if I could play the saxophone. I carried on about it until my parents realized that I was serious. So, they got me one when I was 10 and I got really involved in it right away. And they were always very supportive, which I’m very thankful for.

Clive: And Paul Desmond was an early influence in that decision, is that true?

Chris: Uh-huh. Well, the sound of Paul Desmond’s alto, you know. That was a sound I had never heard before. A beautiful sound wafting in the air.

Clive: This is something I notice in your playing: the consistency of tone and clarity of each note, regardless of which notes you string together.

Chris: That may be the hallmark of someone that has a vision of what they want to do. I definitely hear that in his playing and it’s a much different quality than, say, John Coltrane’s but, in a way, they share this clarity of purpose.

Clive: Yes, you can hear an absolute commitment. And I’m not surprised to hear you mention such a broad array of influences because I hear some of that in your playing. Some popular references, but also the Bartok reference is very evident. Among all those classical musicians that you mentioned, do you rank him high among them as an influence?

Chris: Oh, sure. Yeah. You know, a few of the composers from the 20th century spoke to me most at first… Stravinsky looms really large. You know, The Rite of Spring! And also the French impressionists, for lack of a better word: Ravel and Debussy. I think they have been an influence on a lot of jazz musicians. But yes, the music of Bartok shares with Stravinsky a very rhythmic focus. They have very different ways of dealing with it, but that was a big focus of their music, which I think is something that you can apply to what we do.

Clive: I’m curious about the Mingus Big Band, your place in it and what that meant as a building block in your development.

Chris: Yeah. I think that was very, very helpful. It was an environment that you wouldn’t get in school, let’s put it that way. There was a certain rawness to the energy of the group that I think was true to Mingus’ spirit. I never met him obviously, but a few of the members in the band had actually worked with him and knew him and so the spirit was such that if you didn’t stand your ground and stand up to take a solo when there was a chance, you just might not get to play! I mean, it wasn’t a nice polite, everyone gets a medal kind of situation. It was much rawer than that and there were arguments and this and that, but it was alive, you know, the music was alive and you could feel the whole thing and there were some great musicians that I had the chance to work with: John Hicks, John Stubblefield, and Frank Lacy… all these guys that were very, very kind to me and supportive. Yeah, that was a big learning thing too…

Clive: In part, because you could hold your own, is that right?

Chris: Yeah. Well, you just have to show that you can jump in and deal, then all right! You’re in the family.

Clive: You started making your own records pretty soon after getting into the scene in New York and you’re Concentric Circles record in`95 with Kenny Werner raises a question because I was very much affected by Kenny Werners book, Effortless Mastery and I wondered if you had anything to do with it or if it influenced your thinking and playing at all.

Chris: He hadn’t written that yet when I was first getting to know him. So, just seeing how he operated was definitely an inspiration. He would show up, there was a weekly class he had at the New School. We would choose notes at random out of a hat and then he’d write a tune based on those notes in different ways and we would suggest different ways of going about it and explore that – using that to promote the idea that you can make something out of anything if you know the craft and have the imagination. And then, in between that, he’d tell all these stories of his crazy exploits and his friends’ crazy exploits and we were just in stitches.

Clive: So, very often brushing up against people like that is less about theory and more about the energetic experience of being human, wouldn’t you say?

Chris: Yeah. The nuts and bolts musical information you can get out of a book or you can get out of looking at scores and reading theory, but the real important thing is how people put it together and how it reflects who they are and what you hear in the music. And yes, there is no direct way to transmit that knowledge except to be around the person and to be receptive to everything about what they’re communicating both about music and everything else. You see how it’s all connected. That’s really the way education works in this kind of music.

Chris Potter

Clive: Charlie Haden seemed to possess a quality that allowed him to transcend genres and you can hear it in his music, it’s wonderful stuff.

Chris: Yeah. There’s a lot of amazing folks that I’ve met being involved in this music. Ornette (Coleman) and Wayne Shorter, I mean,  these are special people – besides being great musicians!

Clive: I know you’ve played a lot with Brad Mehldau, who is a much-admired contemporary of yours, yes?

Chris: I first met Brad Mehldau when I came to the New School and we were in an ensemble together, so we were both like 18 or 19. I feel like we’ve kind of grown up together in a certain way, even if we don’t see each other all the time or play together all the time. Just kind of watching the art of their music, and their life, and their career. People like Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel, you know. A lot of musicians that I’ve come up playing with, you know, like Adam Rogers and Craig Taborn…

Listen: Potter and Mehldau perform Book of Kells on the album “Moving In”

Clive: The Underground Orchestra guys. Is that who you’re touring with in Europe right now or is it The Dreamer is the Dream group?

Chris: No. It’s kind of a hybrid, it’s basically the Underground Band. It’s the same band that I’ll be with there (in Lexington): It’s Adam Rogers on guitar and Fima Ephron on bass and then Dan Weiss who will be playing drums. So, it’s gonna be primarily music that’s already been recorded with Underground, but also some other music. We were just on the road for a few weeks and it was really taking off in a nice way, so we will be happy to present it there.

Treat yourself: 

Watch for part two of Clive’s conversation with Chris Potter on April 16.

To purchase tickets, please visit lexingtonlyric.tix.com