By Mike Faloon | Photos by Michael Bogdanffy-Kriegh / Studio MBK
“If I walk quiet
I hear the bird’s pretty tune
High in the hills
Me and this beautiful moon”
Kim Deal, “Beautiful Moon”
Winter hates jazz. That’s the latest joke. Last week’s show was cancelled due to snow. The previous week’s, too. Until a couple of hours ago tonight seemed slated for the same fate. We had an early release at school and I spent the afternoon shoveling the driveway and raking the roof. I had to use a baseball bat and hammer to break up the ice clinging our front porch.
Ben Monder could not be more gentle as he coaxes sounds from his guitar. His left hand strolls about the fretboard while his right hand hovers above the pick ups. Yet the notes fly like sparks, spectacular oranges and reds too numerous to calculate. He has a speed skater’s deceptive effort-to-movement ratio, seeming to coast great lengths on easy pushes.
Monder is seated, one foot on the floor, the other casually propped on a monitor. He’s wearing a winter hat and unassuming pants and shirt. He resembles Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi/Evens). He looks like Emil, our plumber, too. It’s like the old Electric Company segment—“It’s the plumber! I’ve come to fix the sink!”—but refitted: “I’m the guitarist. I’ve come to ease your pain.” That could be construed on existential or philosophical levels, but right now, after the shoveling, raking, hacking, Monder’s playing brings on pure physical relief.
There was some solace in hearing the roar of my neighbor’s snow blower, chomping through the accumulation covering our shared driveway. But the beast of a machine kept jamming up. Keith had to stop every few feet, emphatically lift the handles and slam down the front to unclog the auger. When we finished I asked if he wanted to go to Quinn’s. He didn’t inquire who was playing, just asked when I wanted to leave.
The opening scenes of Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone say so much, thanks in large part to the dearth of dialogue. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) moves through her world showing how she is surrounded by others, to varying extents supportive of and supported by them, but very much on her own journey.
James Keepnews sees Keith and I looking for a table and invites us to join him. It’s his birthday. Well-wishers stop by. His phone pings like a PBS pledge drive. He’s unusually amped for tonight’s show. He’s been talking it up for weeks. “You have to see this one. Have to.” Something about best or favorite or most important modern guitarist. I forget the words but I’ve come to trust his recommendations. Hard to believe that all of this—the place, the people, the performances—was new to me a year ago.
Quinn’s is closing soon, shutting down for a couple of weeks for renovations. It seemed like a natural time to pause these columns, take stock, see what I’ve got, and begin shaping the book. Keepnews’s enthusiasm won me over, though, so here I am, notebook in hand, transfixed by the sight of Monder’s fingers spider crawling back and forth. The guitar neck seems so small in his grasp, so deceptively easy to navigate.
Of all Jackie Chan’s stunts, the one that comes to mind most often is probably the simplest. He’s running down an alley, desperate to escape, as always. The wall to his left is too high to scale, just beyond his reach. He runs at the wall, leaps, uses his feet to push toward the parallel wall, which he then uses to propel himself over the first wall. Frightened, fleeing human turned vertical pinball. It’s probably the least risky of his stunts, but it’s a stunning display of will and ability. Unlike his other stunts, this one—even just the memory of it—leaves me with the momentary impression that I too could scale walls. Even when rational thought prevails I’m left with the comforting sense that one of us can pull off such feats.
Keith and I go back and forth as Monder plays on.
“It’s like two guitars.”
“It’s like two guitars and a bass—do you hear that?”
“Yes. Two guitars and bass, and a viola, too.”
We’re watching the same show. Arguably we’re hearing the same sounds. But neither of us has a scorecard that matches up with the sonics; we’re coming up short in establishing any sort of one-to-one correspondence. It’s like watching close magic—I’m just a few feet away. I can see everything. I can explain none of it.
Monder’s motivations are different obviously; he’s not out to be coy or deceptive. Yet still we search and poke and prod, look for tricks or codes or patterns; try to make sense of something so far beyond our reach, humanize it. All the while marveling more than minimizing.
“Did you see that double jointed pinky move?”
“Those are finger extensions, right?”
“How can one person do that?”
There I am, in a dream the other night, staring across a grassy, open field on a sweet spring afternoon. To my left, the Metro-North train that’s left us stranded. To my right, in the distance, a hill leading to a farmhouse. Passengers flock across the field. An elderly woman lies at the base of the hill, on her side, scratching her dog behind the ears.
“It’s not really jazz, is it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“But it’s not rock…”
“But it’s kind of all of them.”
Ree’s most viable option is to sell off the one asset at her disposal: the trees on her family’s property. But she’s too proud, too defiant, duty bound to do right knowing that this will propel her down the path of greatest resistance.
Monder has a streak of that. With his talent he could easily coast down more lucrative roads, delve into the ding dong world of guitar magazine pyrotechnics, lean into the flash and glitz. I don’t want to reduce Monder to caricature, make him seem like a monk removed from the rest of us. Granted, he talks less than Ree Dolly but his wit comes through when he does.
Ben Monder: (Appears to be speaking to the audience, but without a mic)
Keepnews: We can get you a mic.
Monder: (Speaking into newly acquired mic) Sounds the same to me but I guess I’m being amplified somewhere. (To Rojo, the sound guy) Can you cut the hi-mids? I’m kidding. That last song was ‘Windowpane.’ It was written for younger arms.”
The elderly woman is smiling, inviting, as people zig zag through the rock garden that leads up to her patio. I assume there are buses waiting out front but no one in the line is speaking, so I’m not certain. The line is calm, orderly, with a sense of reverence. As I walk to the front door I think to myself, How could this fit with my next Quinn’s column?
Both of Monder’s feet find their way to the floor for the final tune, foreshadowing a different turn. The flourishes are more demonstrative as the volume and speed and distortion build, ramp up to monolithic masses of sound, colors streaking by, distorting what I think I know of space and time.
James Keepnews, perhaps—no, certainly—emboldened by the confluence of such an ending to such a show on such a night, makes an on-mic request for an encore.
Keepnews: (To audience) Two words: jazz, mother-------! (To Monder) I’ve heard you do it with a trio. How about solo—“Wichita Lineman”?
Monder: I’ll try it. Really might not work. I don’t know.
Keith: (To me) Stay for another?