For an example of how New York can bring together exciting pairs of musicians, look no further than Aaron Shragge and Ben Monder. Together, they weave through the sonic worlds of North Indian Classical music, Japanese poetry, modern jazz vocabulary, and spacious, long-form improvisation. The duo features Monder on electric guitar, and Shragge on shakuhachi, trumpet, and his custom “Dragon Mouth Trumpet,” an instrument combining elements of trumpet and soprano trombone.
Having released their first record in 2010, The Key Is In The Window (Tzviryu Music), the duo will celebrate the release of their second duo recording at The Jazz Gallery at the end of July, This World of Dew. We spoke with Monder and Shragge about the evolution of their duo, as well how poetry infused this project with themes of loneliness, perseverance, and impermanence.
The Jazz Gallery: You and Ben are such a balanced and sensitive duo. We’re lucky when we find musical counterparts who complement us so well. Did you know of Ben and his musicianship before you began playing together?
AS: I first met Ben through an improvisation teacher of mine, Rémi Bolduc. Ben was in Montréal performing with Rémi, and I sat in on a rehearsal they had and I met him that way. We met again through [guitarist] Brandon Bernstein when Ben was playing at the Vanguard several years ago. So I knew who he was, but I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to reach out to him on my own. Some time later, Brandon met Ben in Louisville where Ben was giving a workshop. Brandon showed him around, they hit if off, and Brandon told me “You should play with Ben sometime.” We got in touch, and it worked out. Working with Ben has been an inspiration. I’ve learned a lot playing with him and writing for him.
TJG: Were you living within walking distance of each other at that time?
AS: I was actually living in Bushwick, in the recording studio where we recorded both of our albums. I lived in that recording studio for over five years. One of those New York living situations: It was great for practicing, and obviously for recording [laughs], but there were no windows. For the last leg of it, I was actually living in the vocal booth. After leaving Bushwick, I was in Ridgewood for a time. When my wife and I, my girlfriend at the time, decided to move in together, we found this place in Kensington. It was a coincidence that we would move so close to where Ben had lived for quite a while. I remember the first time Ben and I rehearsed, I wondered how I’d get to his place, and I realized the easiest and fastest way would be just to walk.
TJG: Ben, you’ve released two records with Aaron at this point. Can you remember your first impression of his playing?
Ben Monder: Aaron was coming from a different place than I was used to, which was refreshing. He’s a scholar of Indian Hindustani music, and I’ve always been a fan of it, but have never really studied it and never knew too much about what’s going on. It was interesting to fit into the schemes of the Ragas he was adapting to his instruments. The music had a peaceful aura, and we could get into some more purely timbral areas as opposed to just playing over forms and jazz harmonies.
TJG: It sounds like playing with Aaron presented an opportunity for you to slow down?
BM: That’s a good way of putting it. It’s always fun to explore an area that you haven’t really delved into, but with which you still resonate.
TJG: So what’s it like when you get together? The recordings are well-paced and spacious, but I could imagine you rehearsing short segments with intensity too.
AS: Rehearsals are pretty minimal. Ben’s preference, which I’ve learned to adapt to and enjoy, is for us to run through heads and talk through forms. Occasionally we’ll look at little sections, but we largely know what the structures are already, so we just go in and play. It keeps the music really fresh, we’re not really rehearsing solo sections to see how things fit. Being Ben Monder, he has both a vast harmonic capacity and the facility to do single lines on the guitar. When we were doing this record and making alternate takes, Ben would do very different approaches which sounded equally good.
TJG: How do prepare for that kind of open-ended exploration, outside of getting together to run heads and forms? Imagine you had a student who was embarking on a wide-open duo project, and didn’t know how to begin.
BM: What I would suggest, and what I do, is work to have as many possibilities available to you as you can. I like to explore a lot of different areas, emotionally and sonically, and try to make the best choices. It’s a lot of technical work in terms of knowing as many voicings and harmonic possibilities as you can, so that options present themselves as they arise.
TJG: How do thousands of choices not become overwhelming?
BM: [Laughs] That’s the secret of improvising. It’s hard to know how certain things are chosen, why certain others are discarded. Through experience, you know what you want to hear, how it will sound, what it might need. There are a thousand choices, but probably only a few good choices. Experience points you in the right direction. Or the wrong direction, in which case, you change direction [laughs]. Over the years, I’ve becoming less prone to making mistakes, and have a better idea of how things are going to sound before I try them.
TJG: Have you seen your playing change as you adapt to Aaron’s sound?
BM: I don’t think it has fundamentally changed, though I always try to adapt myself to the needs of a project. My playing with Aaron is consistent with a number of things I do in solo guitar. I rarely play with a pick, for one thing. It’s mostly finger-style, filling out harmonies and generating motion through arpeggiation, exploring different timbral possibilities. There’s so much space to explore.
TJG: Aaron, your “Dragon Mouth Trumpet” plays a massive role in your music and your collective sound with Ben. Is it an instrument of your own design?
AS: It’s a custom instrument. This particular Dragon Mouth Trumpet was made by Josh Landress in the city. It’s a variation of The Firebird which was made by Holton for Maynard Ferguson in the 70s. The basic concept is that you combine a soprano trombone and valve trumpet. The Firebird and other similar models only had four slide positions, so mine was made with a full slide with seven positions. For those who are curious, it’s done telescopically, otherwise the horn won’t be in tune. Though as it is now, it’s very difficult to play. There’s a reason why people don’t make instruments like this [laughs]. To combine the two systems is a complicated process that hasn’t been perfected.
The challenge of playing this instrument gives me a certain freedom. Things which I can do on this horn that I take for granted are impossible on any other trumpet. You can’t bend a note on a regular trumpet without drastically changing the timbre of the instrument or doing a half valve. Here, I can bend between notes easily, and can bend even further if I combine the valves with the slide.
TJG: It has an unbelievable sound, and with Ben, the fluidity of your tone really contrasts with the guitar’s fretted intonation.
AS: The guitar has that characteristic, being a fretted instrument, but Ben also adapts a fair amount, bending notes when he can. I had him tuning his low E string down to a Bb on one track, which added some weight too. One challenge of playing with guitar is that it’s an open-pitch instrument. You have the guitar, which is pretty standard in terms of where the pitch is going to be, so with the Shakuhachi and Dragon Mouth Trumpet, which have a lot of variation in pitch, it’s about finding ways to coexist.
TJG: How has playing the Dragon Mouth Trumpet informed your relationship with the traditional trumpet, and where did the idea for the instrument begin?
AS: I’ve dedicated myself to the Dragon Mouth Trumpet, it’s the main instrument that I play. When I practice every day, I only practice that instrument. It’s expanded my melodic concept a lot. I’ve become less reliant on a linear melodic approach using the valves, because when I play, I can integrate bending, so it changes my ideas. As a result, when I play just the valves, that concept comes through.
Taking a step back, I study North Indian vocal music, classical music, and Raga, so that study was a catalyst that encouraged me to adapt certain concepts and embellishments to the trumpet. With the Dragon Mouth Trumpet, there are all these other techniques that I can now do that aren’t necessarily related to Indian classical music, combining valves and slide to make unusual sounds.
TJG: Ben, you have a number of duos, including projects with Bill McHenry and Theo Bleckmann. What do you bring with you to your duo with Aaron?
BM: Every project makes you grow as a musician and artist. Having experience playing in duos makes one more confident, I think. Supplying support when it’s needed, generating ideas, being exposed. At this point, I generally feel comfortable as the main means of support for the other person. At the same time, I can immerse myself in the sound of what both of us are doing. I take my mind away from what I’m doing, and if I concentrate on the totality of our sound, I feel like that frees me up creatively.
TJG: Do you find yourself doing that in musical situations in general?
BM: Ideally, that’s where one wants to be, especially as an improviser. Getting out of your own head, relying on the sound of the room, observing your role in that as a way of letting more of your unconscious self participate. The duo is a perfect format for that.
TJG: Shakuhachi is an instrument that demands focus, sensitivity, and respect for the tradition. How did you come across shakuhachi, and how has it fallen in with the rest of your practice?
AS: I’ve been practicing Zen Buddhism since just before I moved to New York, going on fourteen years now. When I began practicing Zen, I wanted to find a way to integrate it into my music practice. I started sitting in the same posture while I practice trumpet, and found I was more grounded and focused when practicing in that posture. When I moved to New York, I looked up “zen” and “music,” and the first result was the shakuhachi. Coincidentally, that weekend, next to the New School where I was playing at the time, shakuhachi grand master Ronnie Seldin was playing at the Tenri Cultural Institute. I went to see him and asked if I could take a lesson, thinking I’d learn techniques I could apply to the trumpet. Ronnie, being as much a salesman as he was a shakuhachi master, said when I got to my first lesson, “Here’s your instrument, learn these notes for next week.” That started a journey.
TJG: Are you grateful for that, or, was it another thing to add to your plate?
AS: I’m definitely grateful. Ronnie was an exceptional human being. He died about a year ago. It was incredible, the dedication he had to bringing this music to the west. Right until the end of his life, he was teaching in New York, Rochester, and Baltimore every month. I would never have thought to bring shakuhachi into performance context so early into my playing, but I was doing these long meditation retreats in the summer, and my Zen teacher pushed me to perform for everybody. I remember calling Ronnie on the phone and saying, what should I play? At that point, I hadn’t learned any of the Zen music yet. Performing in that context became something of a regular thing for me for a while, at retreats. Those were profound experiences, to be sit and focus on one piece, then play it for everybody.
TJG: Your musical path seems to have involved immersion in many ways, from Zen to North Indian music to Shakuhachi. Tell me about your immersion in poetry, from Issa Kobayashi to Charles Bukowski.
AS: Bukowski began as a personal connection. His poetry itself is inspiring, but his personal story is just as impactful. He worked at a post office for many years, did all these odd jobs, but never letting the writing die. He continued to write no matter what, persevering and staying dedicated for the sake of his art. For me, that story brings additional power to the beauty of the poetry.
In terms of the Zen poets, I was exposed to translations of their writings in an anthology “The Poetry of Zen” (Shambhala) at a Zen retreat. We’d have a study week, so I would work on those poems in a semi-monastic workshop context. It was profound to connect with that poetry in such depth, and certain poems in that book have stayed with me.
The This World of Dew suite is an adaptation of Issa Kobayashi’s writing on a certain period of his life, a reflection his process of losing his daughter. Many compositions from the new record were premiered at The Village Zendo. In preparing the music, we’d talk about these themes of loss and perseverance. With these compositions, I find myself translating the feeling of a poem into music. When you read these poems again and again, they bring up thoughts and memories. If you pour that into music, you can create a composition. From the poem, the music can have its own life.
TJG: Ben, how is the poetry linked to the music for you?
BM: The poetry evokes a sense of solitude and emptiness. Keeping that mood in mind, certain sonic areas present themselves. Though it’s hard to necessarily articulate a sonic choice, it seems more appropriate to express these feelings through the music because of the composition’s relationship to the poetry. In general, the poetry isn’t agonizing or tortured. Rather, it’s reflective, internal, peaceful, searching. Those feelings inform the sonic choices we make.
Aaron Shragge (dragon mouth trumpet + shakuhachi) and Ben Monder (electric guitar) celebrate the release of This World of Dew at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, July 20, 2018. The duo will be joined by special guests from Brooklyn Raga Massive. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.