The Distance was recorded live at the 2004 Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Although famed New York guitarist Ben Monder had never met Vancouver musicians Chris Gestrin and Dylan van der Schyff, certain affinities seemed to click into place. Both Gestrin and Monder are masters of jazz harmony, which is evident from the title tune; all three musicians are very sensitive to texture and timbre and the subtle give and take of free improv.
The album is wholly improvised apart from two pieces each by van der Schyff and Gestrin, yet there’s a cumulative sense of continuity and flow. The composed pieces tend to hover on the brink of freedom, while the improvs are fascinating as process but also strong on form.
The particular character of this trio’s music-making involves a balance between speed/dynamism and a more inward, meditative feeling, between expansiveness and concentration, abstraction and the luminous impressions of the moment, music as sound or ambience and gesture as statement. The shifting continuum between consonance and dissonance or distortion also plays a part: Gestrin’s preparations (e.g. paper laid on strings in “Extrinsic”), Monder’s exquisite grunge (“Dark Engine”), van der Schyff’s multi-hued ringings and tappings. At times dreamlike and cinematic, at others almost orchestral in scope and detail, The Distance is a different kind of Chamber Jazz.
Chris Gestrin – Piano, Prepared Piano & Bells
Ben Monder – Electric Guitar
Dylan van der Schyff – Drums & Percussion
TracklistPlease note that the below previews are loaded as 44.1 kHz / 16 bit.
Total time: 00:57:13
|Original Recording Format|
The Western Front, Vancouver
|Release Date||September 26, 2023|
One Final Note
Pairings of guitar and piano can be dour affairs, with all too many players content to fire off ever denser spools of notes and ever thicker harmonies that can tighten around the music like a fist. Not so this first meeting between NYC-based guitarist Ben Monder and the Vancouver-based duo of keyboardist Chris Gestrin and percussion whiz Dylan van der Schyff. Monder plays in a liquid, luminous style that—while it owes a clear debt to Bill Frisell—can occasionally erupt unpredictably into fiery, jagged statements. His tendencies contrast vividly with the stripped-down, lateral playing of Gestrin and the quirky, multi-faceted percussion work from the resourceful van der Schyff.
Though the overall feel of this hour-long disc—a studio session topped off by a couple of live tracks—is relatively restrained, this certainly doesn’t mean the music lacks for energy or vitality. Indeed, the busy, note-heavy playing of “Treacle” or “Extrinsic” provides a wonderful bustle that contrasts pleasingly with some of the more subdued passages elsewhere. There are a few places where things get a bit too aqueous and limpid for my tastes—the opening “Ferns” billows charmingly without really amounting to anything—but in general there is a compelling tension here even in the quietest moments.
For example, the long “#17” plays much more to the trio’s strengths in a fine performance built around resounding thuds from van der Schyff. Monder here relies a bit too much on the volume pedal swells to my ears but he always has a good feel for the dramatics of a piece, playing with economy and focused mostly on tension and release. The fragile lyricism of this piece’s theme provides rich material for Gestrin and Monder to interact. (Gestrin finally gives himself some room to stretch here, and his strongly motivic improvisation is very subtle.)
But while this is the highlight, there are pleasures elsewhere: “Dark Engine” is a nicely spaced-out duet for drums and guitar, recalling some of Monder’s more gnarly material on his own (and the guitarist’s dizzy fractal playing can be heard on the closing “Second Approximation”), while Gestrin sounds great moving from inside the piano to the keys on the subtly morphing groove “View From the Road”. In some sense it’s a shame that meetings like these generally end as one-offs, for while this isn’t a uniformly great record it’s pretty damn good. Here’s hoping this trio convenes again.
Free jazz tends to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it kinds of things, but when three musicians of this caliber get together to improvise, the results can sometimes be enough to convert even the most resistant straight-ahead jazz lover. This album, a mostly improvised trio performance by guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Chris Gestrin, and percussionist Dylan van der Schyff, offers some such moments, though there are also points at which you wish they’d quit yammering and get to the point. Two of the album’s strongest tracks come near the beginning, with the ironically titled “Treacle” (which sounds sharp and bitter, and almost dodecaphonic) and the fascinating “#47” (which sounds like a Czerny etude as rewritten by Anton Webern). “Dark Engine” starts off with technically impressive harmonics before dissolving into a very dark (but not terribly interesting) sort of chaos, but things start to get interesting again with the prepared piano on “Treant” and, especially, “View from the Road.” “Exrinsic” is a quiet but extremely busy piece and another album highlight, while the album’s title track is contemplative and very lovely. Overall, this is an album well worth hearing and one that might be used selectively to show your more skeptical friends that free jazz isn’t all a bunch of hideous noise and aimless noodling.
All About Jazz
Creative jazz festival promoters have the unique opportunity to bring together artists who have never worked together but share common ground. Such collaborations are inherently risky; still, this type of gamble can sometimes yield a festival’s most memorable moments. While Canadian pianist Chris Gestrin and percussionist Dylan van der Schyff had worked together on Gestrin’s Stillpoint (Songlines, 2002) and Trio (Maximum Jazz, 2003), neither had worked previously with Ben Monder.
Monder, based in New York, has emerged over the past fifteen years as one of the most significant guitarists of his generation, with the kind of stylistic reach that few can match—from the contemporary big band of Maria Schneider’s award-winning Concert in the Garden and creative interpretations of classic bebop tunes in drummer Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band to his own growing body of work as a leader, including last year’s remarkable Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005).
The Distance finds the trio exploring generally dark territory, finding glimpses of beauty in even the most remote corners. Gestrin and van der Schyff each contribute two compositions, although with the exception of Gestrin’s title track, the line between form and freedom is considerably blurred. “Treacle, a van der Schyff piece, is reminiscent of Paul Motian’s 1970s ECM dates, where the briefest melodic fragment acts as a jumping-off point for collective free play. “Treant is more about a feeling than a theme, although Gestrin and Monder briefly interact contrapuntally before opening up to further explorations of the most abstruse kind.
Gestrin’s “#47 is equally oblique, with a spacious beginning leading into a series of tenebrous chordal swells from Monder. Gestrin, starting out on bells, moves to the piano and into the main theme that, with Monder’s warm and clean tone, is reminiscent of John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner’s infrequent collaborations. The title track is the most direct, with an ethereal lyricism that brings to mind some of Abercrombie’s work with his overlooked quartet of the late 1970s.
But in many ways the free improvisations are the most magical. “Dark Engine, a Monder/van der Schyff duet, starts with strange harmonics and van der Schyff flitting about like Tony Oxley. Monder begins forming chordal and linear passages—returning, Bill Frisell-like, to an emphasized low-end root before kicking in the overdrive and, along with van der Schyff, creating the most chaotic moments on the disc. “Extrinsic is similarly anarchistic, but with Gestrin in the pool, there’s more thematic interaction. On “Voice from the Road Gestrin lays paper on the piano strings, creating a buzz-like rhythm with his left hand that allows van der Schyff more interpretive freedom, even as he builds a more distinctive melody with his right hand.
Whether or not this trio will work together again is unknown, but thanks to Tony Reif of Songlines and Vancouver International Jazz Festival artistic director Ken Pickering, the performance has been documented for all to hear. The Distance, with a clear sense of purpose, is ongoing evidence that free improvisation needn’t imply lack of either direction or focus.
Only logged in customers who have purchased this product may leave a review.