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George Winstone and Ben Monder embark on an improvisational odyssey.
“He’s like my dad,” says George Winstone. He’s talking about Ben Monder, the ultra-versatile guitarist who teamed up with Winstone on Odysseus, their new self-released album of duo improvisations. Although Monder is more than 30 years older than Winstone, their dynamic comes across as more big brother-little brother. Winstone, a London-born saxophonist (no relation to British vocalist Norma Winstone), is on a video call from Stone Ridge, New York; Monder soon joins in from his apartment in Brooklyn. Spotting Winstone’s Baja hoodie, his bushy hair giving off Blonde on Blonde-era Bob Dylan vibes, and the exposed wood ceiling beams in the background, Monder gently teases him for looking “very upstate.”
They share the easy rapport of lifelong friends, though they only met a few years ago when Winstone went to check out Monder’s band at the now-defunct 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. After the gig, Winstone asked Monder for a one-on-one lesson. That meeting took place a few weeks later, but it was clear early on that this wasn’t going to be a typical mentor-tutor situation, as Monder was immediately impressed by Winstone’s unique and confident voice on his instrument.
“I feel like he can hear what I’m playing and react to it in a very appropriate way harmonically,” Monder says. “He has a really deep connection with sound compared with a lot of young players who maybe haven’t developed that kind of relationship with sound itself. It just seemed really mature and deep, and the vocabulary was fresh and interesting. George’s playing on our record reflects that.”
Soon afterwards, the pair would perform an improvised duo set at Ornithology, a club in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. It went so well that someone suggested to Winstone that they record it in the studio. So they did. The result is a nine-part soundscape based on that initial performance. Sometimes the music is meditative and ambient, sometimes it’s suffused with an apocalyptic grunginess. Through various pedal effects and techniques, Monder provides an atmospheric counterpoint to Winstone’s probing, twisting, but always melodic phrases.
Despite the title, the music was not inspired by Homer’s epic poem. During the editing process, Winstone was sitting in a restaurant when the title came to him. “There wasn’t a thought that led to that,” he says. “That was the thought, just a single word. When I thought further on that single word, then it encapsulated quite a lot, which I hope when people listen to this they go, ‘Oh, this is fitting.’”
Whatever Winstone’s initial motivations, the finished work suggests a narrative arc of a classic hero’s journey. Winstone explains that certain parts evoke “screeching harpies” (“Part I”) and war (“Part III”), but there are also scenes meant to evoke nurturing warmth (“Part II”) and pastoral scenes (“Part IV”). That development was born out of Winstone’s editing process; the recording session yielded about two hours of material that he had to arrange. “We’re playing quite hard in some parts, and I made sure I found all the soft moments where the guitar isn’t on overdrive and isn’t just us blasting away,” he says. “I was definitely trying to make sure that the listener has respite throughout.”
While there’s a rigor to their work on stage and in the studio, they’re much more laid-back offstage. These days, when Winstone and Monder get together to practice, they often end up meditating most of the time. “I was like, ‘Oh great! I’m gonna play with Ben and [pianist] Shai Maestro,’” Winstone says. “It’s gonna be wonderful. And then we’d sit down for 40 minutes, and they’d go: ‘All right, I guess we’re gonna go home now.’ I’m thinking, ‘I moved to America and I’m sitting and meditating with Ben Monder and Shai and it’s really exciting and we’re going to play music.’”
“Yeah,” Monder quips, “except for the music part.”
Joking aside, Winstone says even that quiet time helps deepen their musical connection.
“When you can be still with each other and go into that place of quiet emptiness, then both your authentic expressions can emerge without too much mist or brain fog in the way,” he says. "I think that’s when you hear the pure essence of two musicians interacting. That creates powerful results.” — John Frederick Moore
Featured photo courtesy of the artists.