What’s Hot With Jazz Guitar: Ben Monder

by Doc Dosco

This week we feature NY jazz guitarist Ben Monder.

A musician in the New York area for 25 years, he has performed with a variety of artists, including Jack McDuff, Marc Johnson, Lee Konitz, George Garzone, Tim Berne, and Kenny Wheeler. He is a regular member of the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra and the Paul Motian Octet, as well as many other projects. He has conducted clinics and workshops around the world, and served on the faculty of the New England Conservatory from 2002-2005. Ben continues to perform original music internationally with his own quartet, trio, and in a duo project with vocalist Theo Bleckmann. He has appeared on over 100 CDs as a sideman, and has released 4 as a leader: Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005), Excavation (Arabesque, 2000), Dust (Arabesque, 1997), and Flux (Songlines,1995).

Ben studied music at Queens College and the University of Miami. After returning to New York in 1984, he spent most of his time working with R&B and wedding bands and practicing jazz in his room. His big break came in 1986 when Jack McDuff called him (personally!) to join his band “The Heatin' System” for some extended road trips to the Midwest and West Coast. It was during this period that Ben developed an unprecedented tolerance for alchohol and had his first experience of being yelled at on the bandstand. He parted amenably from the McDuff aggregation (although Jack has departed this world still owing him $75 for the last gig) for an opportunity to perform in Vienna, home to many of his musical heroes, with a “fusion” unit. It was thrilling to solo over extended 1 chord vamps and eat wiener schnitzel, knowing that the ghosts of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert could be sitting just an arm's length away!

He returned to the States a man of the world and, although it was 6 years before he would return to Europe to perform, began to play more and more “jazz gigs” around New York. A regular gig at the renowned club “Augies” proved important to his development, as well as providing free wine and chicken soup. However, his unothodox approach and sullen demeanor so alienated the perpetually besotted owner that after a year he was barred from ever playing there again, with anybody. It was around this time that the Hasidic drummer/vocalist Yitzhak Bitton started calling him for duo gigs in a Crown Heights hotel basement. Some highlights from the next couple of years include a winter playing lifelike renditions of Louis Prima numbers, Italian Rhumbas, and Disco medleys 4 nights a week with a lounge band at the Glen Island Casino. Ben fondly remembers the high point of each night being his feature on Donna Summer's “Bad Girl.”

In 1990 or '91 he recorded the critically ambiguous “Right Brain Patrol,” a date led by the enigmatic yet diatonically leaning bassist, Marc Johnson. Subsequent tours led to greater visibility for the young Monder, yet the exposure to the constant anti-semitic diatribes of the percussionist proved stressful to his sensitive constitution.

Anyway, our hero was soon fired. Some other famous people he's played with are Paul Motian, Lee Konitz, Toots Theilemanns, and Dave Liebman. He has played on over 90 CDs as a sideman and has 4 of his own.

Ben Monder's website:

Doc Dosco is a jazz guitarist, composer and audio consultant living in Los Angeles, CA. His website is located at http://www.docdosco.com, where you can find more information on the 'What's Hot with Jazz Guitar' columns, audio clips of Doc's playing, and many additional features. Doc now endorses Peerless Guitars and has the website Jazz Guitar Zone to help promote Peerless jazz guitars in the US. He also endorses the new Pignose Valve Tube Amps — great for jazz (and anything else!)

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