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!
Tim Watson is a guitarist and composer based out of Boston, where he attends the Frost School of Music on the prestigious Stamps scholarship.