I actually was at this gig! Ben was a last minute sub for John Abercrombie in this concert series that takes place at my very own Follen Church in Lexington. It was somewhat odd to hear Ben play on that stage, the same stage where I read my now infamous credo (@Jeffrey Gordon) and preformed seemingly hundreds of wholesome skits about God (or the lack thereof; Follen is Unitarian Universalist).
The sixth tune of the night was a very freely interpreted version of Body and Soul. At the end of the head out, Porter and Monder each play a cadenza. I remember being struck by Ben's; particularly the attention he gives to motives and repetition, and the way he connects improvised material to the melodic content of the head. Here is the recording (a decodingmonder exclusive):
For anyone as obsessed with modern jazz guitar as I am, the youtube channel "guydelouest" is an incredible resource. Pages upon pages are filled with concert bootlegs of some of the greatest guitarists of our time, including Kurt, Wayne Krantz, and of course Monder, who makes up the majority of the videos.
It isn't an understatement to say that I wouldn't be able to do decodingmonder.com if this channel didn't exist. Monder is rarely recorded playing on standards, so these bootlegs give me an invaluable perspective on him I wouldn't get from anywhere else.
This week's transcription is a trio version of Embraceable You. Ben's solo is quite long, hence my decision to split it into two parts. Check it out:
Ben doesn't waste anytime in stating his first motif, climbing up the appropriate scale before dropping back down again. This is very similar to one of the motives in his solo over Some Other Blues that I transcribed in week one. Notice some of the note choices here, C#, the #11, and how he changes the rhythms in the motif while keeping the contour somewhat intact.
From an analysis point of view there isn't much to mention here, but its incredible how confident Monder is in this motif; how far he takes it. Lesser improvisers would be playing eighth notes by this point.
The motif comes to a natural stopping point and Ben picks up another thread, which he uses to build tension over the 2-5 in G. The F# (or G#, or E) whole tone scale has a very harsh, unexpected sound, somewhat akin to melodic minor but with b2 and no root. Yes, I know that its really #1.
So many triplets! This is definitely a cornerstone of Ben's style. Even when he's playing these faster subdivisions he manages to create motifs and repetition, which is insane.
The switch from triplets to sixteenth notes is so clean, and the lines he plays are strong and harmonically clear. Every note that he plays is articulated perfectly; he could play a chromatic scale and it would sound incredible.
Given the audio quality, some of these chords might not be exact. However, I tried to transcribe with some of Ben's favorite voicings in mind, so even if every chord isn't 100% correct, they should all make idiomatic sense within his playing. Like realistic fiction, I guess? The motif of descending half steps is the clear focus here. You could think of that motif as the retrograde of the ascending half steps that were present in the two previous excerpts. How deep does the rabbit whole go? If anyone could remember that idea from earlier in their solo, and play it again in retrograde, it'd be Ben.
Ben uses a cool voice leading trick here to get back to Gmaj7. He starts with a B-7 chord, and then moves the bottom two voices down while maintaining the voice on top. I have such a love hate relationship with the Gmaj7 voicing he lands on. The first few times I encountered this voicing with teachers I was convinced it was the worst maj7 voicing imaginable. The minor 9th between the seventh and the root on top was unbearably ugly to my ears. Now, I can recognize that it definitely has a sound. Ted Greene mentioned in a recorded clinic he did that the minor 9th is the only interval that modern society can't stomach, so it must be the next frontier in harmony. I respect Ben pushing the envelope in this way.
Toriyama dissolves the time here and begins playing textures on the cymbals, so Ben opens the rhythms up and starts playing more quarter note triplets. I especially like the ambiguous sus-like arpeggio he uses to play A-7.
Emaj7#5/D gives you four wonderful notes: 9, #11, b7, and b9. Wow! What a cool sub. I'm in awe of how well articulated this line is, again. I'm only starting to realize how amazing Ben's technique is.
Everything Ben plays has such strong logic. Nothing seems forced, ill-conceived, or superfluous. This excerpt is a great example of that.
Ben switches from a triplet grid to a...... quintuplet grid! I don't think I've ever noticed him playing quintuplets before, but they sound so natural here I wouldn't have guessed it if I wasn't transcribing everything.
The direction of every melody is so clear, and each idea is so connected to what comes before and after it. On a different note, we are a minute and a half into his solo, with a grand total of zero bebop cliches.
Ben builds the tension so well with those ascending arpeggios, and the massive chords in the upper register before resolving to a massive Gmaj7 voicing at the top of the next chorus.
1. Even sixteenth notes can develop motifs .
2. Chromaticism can exist outside of bebop language.
3. Find interesting substitutions that use structures you find nice (ie maj7b5, maj7#5, etc)
4. The farther you go with a motif, the better.
Hearing this recording for the first time was somewhat of a spiritual experience. I've checked out Ted Greene, Ralph Towner, Joe Pass, and Ed Bickert of course, but no solo guitar performance has struck me the way this one did. It breaths in a way that I've rarely heard.
I'd be surprised if anyone other than Ben himself could improvise with voice leading this strong and interesting. The solo guitar players of today (Peter Mazza, Pasquale Grasso, etc) can certainly conceive of the harmony that Ben is playing, but only in the context of a chord melody arrangement. That term always reminds me of a joke I've heard, which goes along these lines: when guitarists play the melody and the chords of a tune at the same time, they call it a "chord melody". When piano players do the same thing, they just call it playing the piano.
Ben seems to be closer to playing the piano at this point. No arrangement or special term is neccessary. Here is a segment of the performance. I won't upload the full audio on here because its from an instructional video and therefore is protected content. I'd recommend getting it though, if only to hear this.
This transcription made me come up with two new notations that I find useful for analysis and readability. The first is color coded chord symbols. Chords that are extensions upon the original harmony of the tune (F13 instead of F7, Bb7#11#5 for Bb7alt) are printed in black. Chords that are "outside" or less obvious are printed in blue. Hopefully this makes the difference between Ben's substitute harmony and the written harmony more clear.
The second notation helps the reader to see diatonic constant-structure relationships between chords. Here is an example:
The chord with the different note heads is what generates the five chords after it, through stepwise motion in E Locrian. The arrow indicates the general contour of the phrase and where the generation stops.
This is a particularly useful notation for transcribing Monder. He has mentioned in interviews that he practices this method of stepwise diatonic voice leading religiously , and it shows up in his improvising.
Because this transcription is so dense, I thought it would make sense to put my three favorite moments in this improvisation first so there is something that can be absorbed at a glance.
This is an incredible way of playing a 2-5. Note how in the first two chords, the Ab common tone is maintained while all 3 bottom voices move upwards, very smoothly transforming F-11 into Gbsus. The melody then continues to move upward, supported by a hilarious b9#5 voicing (Bb, Gb, B natural). The last chord in this picture is one that shows up a few times in this improvisation, a 7#9 sound.
The generative voicing here is [D, Eb A, C], which is a derivation of the more commonly used [Eb, F, Bb, D] or Bbadd4. Ben has clearly practiced voice leading this shape extensively. He is able to fluidly move it up and down the scale, before beautifully transitioning into a set of shifting Bb7 sounds.
What a cool melody! This phrase exploits the guitar's easy transposition in a fresh way.
The first few voicings Monder plays make perfect sense. He then plays an insane C melodic minor voicing [Eb A B C]. This voicing looks a lot like Eb+maj7#11 (or Eb lydian augmented) because the Eb is in the bass, but obviously Eb lydian augmented comes from C melodic minor so it doesn't really make a difference. The F13 that comes after is one of my favorite sounds. Ben definitely generated it from an inversion of Ebmaj9no3. In fact, if you go to this link: https://repl.it/E4ez/6, hit run, and input that chord, you will find the F13 in the second row.
We skipped a few measures here because I already analyzed them in the section above. Nothing is particularly remarkable in the first measure asides from the melody being very strong. In the 9/8 measure Ben uses a Bb-6 shape to play the minor 2-5 to D for an altered sound. This is a common trend in how he observes minor 2-5's. The typical jazz school pedagogy is to play locrian♮2 over the -7b5, and altered over the 7b9, but rarely does Monder ever do that. Most of the time he boils the entire progression down into one sound, this time he uses A altered, or Bb melodic minor. The voicing he resolves to has a cool, open sound; its one of my favorite shapes.
Monder slides into a beautiful pattern of spread triads that has somewhat of a Bach chorale-y sound, and finds his way into D7alt sound. There is actually a chord derivation I forgot to label here. The D7#9 in measure 9 [F# C F♮] actually generates the [Eb Ab D] if you move it down two steps of the altered scale. I love how all this dense harmony resolves to the most simple G voicing imaginable, complete with two open strings. Very Bill Frisell. The next few measures are kind of unbelievable. Ben plays G7#5 with an Eb/B voicing and begins working his way down with a D-7b9 voicing, which is a shape that showed up in week 1's transcription as well.
The top voice plays this melody [D C B C] while the bottom three voices move down. What an incredible display of voiceleading mastery. I particularly like the B/C, the second chord in bar 12. I've only recently become hip to this sound as a way of harmonizing the seventh scale degree in a major tonality. It has a similar sound to the b3 passing diminished chord with the natural 7 in the melody that you see in Body and Soul. The second bar in this excerpt is a nice example of the diatonic constant structure chord derivation I've mentioned before. This time, only plays every other chord as the melody climbs up. This is a good way of bringing out the melody line, something Mick Goodrick discusses in The Advancing Guitarist, a book Ben has definitely spent some time with.
I love the first chord in this passage, even if it is difficult to finger. Even Monder pauses for a second to set it up. It's a very open sound. More chord derivation in second and third measure of this passage.
The dominant shape that Ben uses in the first bar of this passage seems like one of his favorites. I don't really get it. I find the tritone between the soprano and alto voices ugly. Asides from that, the melody is exceedingly strong in this passage, and the way it resolves is very satisfying. The dissonance at the end of the third bar foreshadows what will happen in the next few seconds, which is....
A low E pedal point! This section looks more complicated than it is. All the triads are just transpositions of a second inversion triad, but the melody line has a cool contour that he exploits in the third bar, where he changes from triads to the C dorian chord derivation that I discussed in the earlier section.
The D-11/Db voicing in bar 23 is one of my favorites in the whole improvisation. It could also be called a Db Lydian Augmented chord or F/Db(b5).
The series of chords Ben plays in the third measure here is a really interesting concept I'm not sure if I fully understand. They all appear to be either b9 or 13b9 chords seperated by minor thirds. I'm guessing there is some sort of diminished connection. If you can flesh this out better than I can, let me know!
Again ben exploits the open G and B strings at the beginning of the bridge.
Dmaj7/Eb is an interesting sound. It can function as a dominant chord (Ted Greene mentions how using a major triad rooted on the natural seventh of a dominant chord is one of the only ways to harmonize the natural seventh of a dominant chord in Chord Chemistry). Ben seems to just go a step farther by adding the seventh.
1. Every chord can be altered.
2. Every shape is useful.
3. Learn chord derivations inside and out.
4. Reduce chord progressions to just one sound for more fluid voiceleading.
5. Minor 9ths are allowed!
This is one of my favorite late-night Youtube discoveries, a 1995 cassette recording of Remi Buldoc 's (currently chair of jazz studies at McGill) group playing the Coltrane tune Some Other Blues. Monder is at his fiery best here, and the band (Doug Weiss, Owen Howard) doesn't hurt either. His solo exhibits all the things I admire in his playing, beautiful architecture, strange, harmonically ambiguous lines, and hard driving rhythmic intensity. Check it out: (Monder's solo starts at 2:36)
Monder starts this solo with a simply voiced F6 chord, a very neutral sound. The top note, D, becomes the focus, generating the motif that occurs for the first time in bar 5. He then adds a pickup into the second statement of the melody, now in a C whole tone scale.
This motif is repeated with the intervals augmented, still remaining in C whole tone.
He then modulates the motif back into F mixolydian, adding a few extra notes before each climb and messing with the rhythm. The major 7th leap down from Ab to A natural in bar 18 has an particularly harsh sound.
He jumps back down to B natural, which we first hear as the root of a #4 diminished chord or just as the F blues scale, but is instead assimilated as the fifth of a F#/Gb major scale. The motif of ascending and quickly descending remains intact. In bar 24, he jumps back down to B natural again, but instead makes it the seventh of a C melodic minor scale, or F lydian dominant. In bar 26, you can see Monder's harmonic gears spinning, pausing on the C before using D# (formerly Eb) as a common tone connecting C melodic minor to a B triad.
Most players would immediately shy away from the B triad, using it as a small cadence back into F, but instead Monder digs in his heels and plays an entire 8 BARS in B major. I find this section of his solo hilarious; the lilting sound of that motive and its aggressively tonal sound is so offputting because its a tritone off from the key.
Monder begins playing more horizontally at the top of the next chorus, with a Dbmaj7 arpeggio, an aeolian sound.
The first line of this segment is the most clearly Monder plays the changes in this solo. He very clearly outlines the Bb sound in bar 41, then subs in a Bb- before playing Am-7, and Ab-7 as a tritone sub for D7. He begins to slide outside again in bar 46, playing a Gbmaj7 (phrygian) arpeggio and remaining in Gb/F# until the end of bar 48, where he introduces another hilariously tonal motive.
He experiments with this motif, both in Gb and F, before transitioning into a chromatic line that resolves, strangely, to E. The phrase afterwords is puzzling, to say the least. If the C# in bar 55 was moved down to C natural, it would be a simple diminished arpeggio based of the 3 of the D7b9, an idea that everyone has heard thousands of times, but that isn't what Monder plays. The C# still functions fine as a half step enclosure of D, but the idea becomes something much more alien because of it.
Monder pauses, then plays an ascending C whole tone scale starting on the third, adding some passing tones at the end, then sliding into a pattern of two add4 triads a half step apart.
The last four notes of the previous segment (C Db C Bb) resolve naturally to A, and Monder plays a pretty clear D7b9 in bar 68. He outlines the G-7 with a 4th + 2nd intervallic pattern, a concept he discusses in one of his instructional videos. Bar 71 builds tension beautifully at the bottom of the chorus.
That open A string on the downbeat is so heavy, as are the notes he adds on top of it.
More harmonically ambiguous lines build tension until the top of the next chorus, where Monder lands on an A natural, and then plays a series of ascending and descending 11 chords with an F common tone on top.
The chords in the end of the last segment voice lead well into the pattern that starts here, whole step descending chords that I first identified as -7b9's, but what could also be maj7add4 or 7(13)'s.
Monder finishes that descending chord motif, and plays a few more lines in the next chorus before the alto sneaks in and starts the fours.
Tim Watson is a guitarist and composer based out of Boston, where he attends the Frost School of Music on the prestigious Stamps scholarship.