With his ECM leader debut, Amorphae, Brooklyn-based guitarist Ben Monder has created an album of dreamlike quality – free-floating and kaleidoscopic, mostly freely improvised and full of surprise. Amorphae is framed by two solo guitar pieces and has at its center two trio performances featuring Monder with Pete Rende on synthesizer and free-jazz veteran Andrew Cyrille on drums. The album also features Monder in duet with Cyrille on two numbers and with the late, great drummer Paul Motian on two more, including a dramatic abstraction of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein song that Monder had previously played with Motian’s Electric Bebop Band. With the whorls of the album’s soundscapes and its strangely evocative song titles – “Zythum,” “Tumid Cenobite,” “Hematophagy” -- Monder creates his own world.
A fixture on the New York scene for three decades, Monder has performed alongside musicians from Motian, Jack McDuff, Lee Konitz and George Garzone to Maria Schneider, Guillermo Klein, Marc Johnson and Theo Bleckmann, appearing on some 180 albums as a sideman. Amorphae is Monder’s sixth album as a leader, and it’s a departure for the guitarist, fully improvised in the moment (other than the reharmonized “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” – though most of that performance is improvised, too).
The genesis of Amorphae was in Monder’s Manhattan duo sessions with Motian in 2010, sadly abbreviated by the iconic drummer’s passing. “Paul was such an inspiring figure,” Monder says. “I had been listening to him since I was a teenager, so playing in his group was a wonderful thing. His artistic voice extended from the drum kit to his composing to the conception of his bands. I really appreciated his direct, honest presence and the positive energy of his musicianship.” For Amorphae, Monder and Motian reprised “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and also duet on “Triffids,” the guitarist’s chiming, encircling sounds blending ideally with the drummer’s colorist playing.
Monder had previously performed alongside Cyrille – who made his name with Cecil Taylor in the ’60s before becoming a bandleader himself and playing in longstanding collective Trio 3 with Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman – in a group led by saxophonist Bill McHenry. Among their gigs, that band played at Motian’s memorial concert at New York’s Symphony Space. Following that experience, Monder paired with Cyrille – like Motian, a master colorist – for intimate studio performances, both in duet and with Rende adding hues of his own.
“What Paul and Andrew had in common as drummers – along with an incredible wealth of experience – was this amazing listening ability,” Monder says. “Providing their fellow performer with the best possible counterpoint, always creative, never obvious – always maintaining this balance between retaining their own voice while reacting to the voice of another. Both were very easy to improvise with, so that everything you play feels right.”
Rende provides aural textures on “Gamma Crucis” and “Zythum,” with his synthesizers providing “a huge sonic palette,” Monder says. “It looked like a Yes concert in the studio, with stacks of synthesizers and modules. Having been a teenage prog-rock fan, I love playing with sounds like that.”
The sessions for Amorphae found Monder experimenting with different voices, scales and pitch-class sets on the guitar than he had used before. (For example, in “Hematophagy,” he derived voicings from the symmetrical eight-note scale of Messiaen’s Mode VI.) As for Monder’s instrumentarium, he employs on most tunes his trusty Ibanez AS-50, his primary guitar since the early 1980s. On “Tumid Cenobite,” he plays for the first time on record a baritone guitar, strung a fifth lower than a regular guitar, A to A. And on “Gamma Crucis,” Monder plays a Fender Bass VI, which is tuned an octave lower than a guitar. The main guitar effect that Monder uses to create the orchestral range of sound on Amorphae is his vintage Lexicon LXP-1 reverb unit, with the decay set on maximum for what he calls the “extreme sustain” that is heard especially on “Zythum,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and “Dinosaur Skies.”
About his exotic titles, Monder says: “Well, some are just sort of funny to me, like ‘Tumid Cenobite,’ but somewhere I read that zythum is an ancient beer-like concoction and my ‘Zythum’ has a woozy sort of sound, as if you’d drank too much of it... ‘Gamma Crucis’ has an outer-space feel. And hematophagy means feeding on blood, so the tune named after that is sort of piercing sonically and is intervallically aggressive. The solo ‘Tendrils’ has a growing, seeking quality, with one idea iterated over and again. I guess the titles are a way of evoking an image for pretty abstract music, much more ambient than what I usually do. And my made-up word for the album title, Amorphae, comes from amorpha, another plant reference, like ‘Tendrils’ and ‘Triffids,’ that reflects the amorphous sounds but also the freely developing, evolving quality of this music.”