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Steve Cardenas: Missing Motian & Praising Monk

Before & After listening session with the prolific guitarist

Steve Cardenas (photo by Anna Yatskevich)
Steve Cardenas (photo by Anna Yatskevich)

Steve Cardenas’ recent Newvelle Records LP is called Charlie & Paul—as in Haden and Motian, two of the guitarist’s biggest influences and two musicians who gave his career a boost by hiring him. The lyricism of their compositions is echoed in his two leader albums for Fresh Sounds and two subsequent ones for Sunnyside.

Cardenas didn’t move to New York until he was in his early 30s, not because he wasn’t ready but because he was so busy gigging wherever he was. He grew up in Kansas City, where he progressed from junior-high rock bands to prog-rock to fusion to mainstream jazz, and got a chance to play with Jay McShann and Claude Williams. He lived in San Francisco for four years, playing with Paul McCandless and Jeff Beal, and then followed Beal to L.A. for three.

His first big break in New York was getting hired by Motian for the Electric Bebop Band, which led to recording sessions and live gigs as a leader and as a sideman with Haden, Steve Swallow, Ben Allison, John Zorn, Kate McGarry and Chris Potter. Cardenas, 59, lives in a sunlit condo on a leafy residential block in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and it was there that we listened to the following tracks and talked about them. – GEOFFREY HIMES

  1. John Scofield
    “The House of the Rising Sun” (This Meets That, Emarcy). Scofield, guitar; Bill Frisell, tremolo guitar; Steve Swallow, bass; Bill Stewart, drums. Recorded in 2006-2007.

BEFORE: [almost immediately] I already know who that is. That’s Sco. I think Frisell is on this track, and Swallow’s there too. It’s “House of the Rising Sun,” one of the first songs I learned on guitar—and it may be true of those guys too. Folks in my generation learned that song from the Animals’ version, which was a hit on the radio. It has that great arpeggiated pattern. It was the perfect learning piece, because it was simultaneously easy and challenging.


AFTER: Sco was a turning point for me. I heard him just as his first recordings were coming out. I remember thinking, “This guy is a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Joe Henderson.” He had that blues thing from Albert King and Freddie King, along with Hendrix, and this swing feel. He didn’t do that thing where every note is picked hard. I had played a lot of blues tunes back when I was in a rock band, and Sco made me realize there wasn’t such a separation between jazz, rock, blues, and so on. I was aware of Larry Coryell and Jerry Hahn, who had crossed those lines, but John really married them all together.

Sco had that legato thing that horn players have; Metheny had that same feel, and that all comes out of Jim Hall. Sco, Frisell, Pat Metheny and those guys were the first generation to have both rock influences and jazz influences, and when they digested all that, it came out in the way they played. I’m a bit younger than those guys, but I have older siblings who are their age, so I also grew up hearing Axis: Bold as Love, Sgt. Pepper and The Band.

  1. Wes Montgomery
    “Straight, No Chaser” (Echoes of Indiana Avenue, Resonance). Wes Montgomery, guitar; Buddy Montgomery, piano; Monk Montgomery, bass; Thelonious Monk, composer. Recorded in 1957-1958; released in 2012.

BEFORE: [quickly] Wes Montgomery. Is this one of those old recordings that were released on Echoes of Indiana Avenue? That’s Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser,” of course. Monk played all his blues in B-flat, but Miles recorded [this tune] in F, so most people have done it in F ever since. This is brilliant. Wes was one of the true giants. His time feel is infectious; it made such an impression on me. This is so great.


AFTER: I’m lucky to have worked on Monk’s music quite intimately. I lead the Thelonious Monk Ensemble every spring semester at the New School, where I teach. We only do Monk compositions. I also worked with Don Sickler on preparing the Thelonious Monk Fake Book for Hal Leonard, the first book with all his compositions.

By diving into Monk’s catalog that deeply, I got to know the catalog’s neglected songs, which are so great. His compositions sound like the bebop era, but they have these unexpected turns. He was non-linear, and his rhythmic placement was incredible. But at the same time, they all have a song-like quality; you can hum the heads. Even when he would comp behind the soloists, he would continue to play the melody; he always kept the theme in mind. He came out of gospel and stride, so he had a strong sense of song form.

When I lived in San Francisco, I was in a band called Evidence, a quartet with two guitars that only did Monk compositions. Randy Vincent, the other guitarist, and I had each transcribed a bunch of Monk tunes, and we set out to transcribe the rest. We wanted to play all of Monk’s music without relying on all those fake books with the wrong chords. So I had all these charts and someone suggested I contact Don, who is not only a great trumpeter and arranger but also administers Monk’s music for the family. Don had photocopies of 16 of Monk’s original manuscript scores. People thought he was sloppy and making mistakes the way he played, but no, you look at the manuscripts and that’s how he wrote it. He meant to play those two notes right next to each other at the same time.

  1. Ben Monder
    “Triffids” (Amorphae, ECM). Monder, guitar, composer; Paul Motian, drums, composer. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: That sounds like Motian and Ben Monder. Am I right? Motian has such a personal way of playing out of time; he invented that style—he’s the prototype. I loved playing with Ben. There’s so much depth to what he does that I forget he’s playing guitar. Just like I don’t think of Wayne Shorter playing the tenor but playing great music, I don’t think of Ben shredding on the guitar—I go, “Wow, this music is amazing.”

AFTER: Brad Shepik and Kurt Rosenwinkel were the original guitarists in Paul’s Electric Bebop Band in the early ’90s, and that became the octet. First I replaced Brad, and then Ben replaced Kurt in 2000. To have two guitars in a band like that, you really have to listen. That’s a word that kept coming up when I took a workshop with Jim Hall. I’m sure Paul thought, “I need musicians who know how to listen, and if they don’t, I’ll say something.” He rarely had to say anything.

Paul was like Monk as a composer; his writing was so singable. He’s thought of as an avant-gardist, but I think of him as a folk artist. Some songs sounded like old Alpine or Hungarian melodies.

  1. Ornette Coleman & Prime Time
    “Desert Players” (Virgin Beauty, Portrait). Coleman, alto saxophone, trumpet, composer; Charlie Ellerbe, Jerry Garcia, Bern Nix, guitars; Al MacDowell, Chris Walker, basses; Denardo Coleman, drums, keyboards; Calvin Weston, drums. Released in 1988.

BEFORE: That’s Ornette, of course, but I don’t know this album. Is this Prime Time? What we were just saying about Monk and Motian also applies to Ornette: His music just sings. The only time I saw him live was at a concert at Battery Park. I remember thinking, “This guy is not just a jazz musician; he’s a folk musician, a blues musician.” Even though I knew that beforehand, now he was hitting me over the head with it.

AFTER: Oh, this is the album with Bern Nix, Charlie Ellerbe and Jerry Garcia. That’s cool; Jerry has that beautiful melodic quality. I try to listen to as many things as possible. I’m not married to any genre being better than any other—there’s good music in all those categories.

I love Hendrix, of course, but I also love George Harrison, who wasn’t flashy but had that feel. I listen to his solo on “Something,” and I go, “Wow.” Scofield has that same feel for bending notes in time. I listen to Robert Fripp, Steve Howe, Jimmy Page, Andrés Segovia and Carlos Montoya. I became friends with Andy Summers [of the Police] after I met him and learned he was really into Monk. John McLaughlin is usually considered a jazz musician, but he came out of that British rock environment.

  1. Carlos Santana/Mahavishnu John McLaughlin
    “A Love Supreme (Take 2)” (Love Devotion Surrender, Columbia). Santana, McLaughlin, guitars; Jan Hammer, keyboards; Khalid Yasin (Larry Young), organ; Don Alias, Billy Cobham, Michael Shrieve, drums/percussion; Doug Rauch, bass; Armando Peraza, congas; John Coltrane, composer. Recorded in 1972.

BEFORE: I just mentioned McLaughlin and here he is, playing with Santana. He plays with so much fire. Oh, man, is that “A Love Supreme”?

AFTER: Guitar has always been that thing where people are impressed by how fast you can play. McLaughlin was one of those people, with Allan Holdsworth, who had so much facility but also had so much to say musically, who sounded so heartfelt and personal. Even though I admire Carlos, he was not someone I went out of my way to listen to—though when I did I enjoyed it. I like that he doesn’t want to do just his Santana music but wants to explore other worlds too.

My dad is from Mexico, but I never learned Spanish. My dad traveled a lot and my mom didn’t speak Spanish. My dad once told me that he didn’t teach us Spanish because he didn’t want us to get picked on. I still regret that I didn’t grow up bilingual. Plus we were in the middle of the country, so we weren’t surrounded by Latino culture. I heard more country music than mariachi music growing up. My mother listened to Engelbert Humperdinck, and my older siblings were playing all the hip rock stuff.

  1. Mary Halvorson Octet
    “Sword Barrel (no. 58)” (Away With You, Firehouse 12). Halvorson, guitar, composer; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Jacob Garchik, trombone; Jon Irabagon, alto saxophone; Ingrid Laubrock, tenor saxophone; Susan Alcorn, pedal-steel guitar; John Hébert, bass; Ches Smith, drums. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: Wow, that’s a beautiful piece. It’s hard to guess without hearing the improvisation. A certain person comes to mind, but I don’t want to say anything yet. I was thinking Frisell, but now I’m not so sure. It’s really cool, so well done the way the piece evolves. I love how the compositional element is so loosely rendered; everyone’s listening and moving together. It’s almost like a play where the guitars are characters in the first scene and then exit—if it is two guitars and not a harmonizer. But who is it? You really got me on this one.

AFTER: Mary writes such creative music. Even if I thought for a moment that it was Frisell, it wasn’t derivative. It was her own thing, a nice journey.

  1. Charlie Haden/Jim Hall
    “Bemsha Swing” (Charlie Haden/Jim Hall, Impulse!). Haden, bass; Hall, guitar; Thelonious Monk and Denzil Best, composers. Recorded in 1990.

BEFORE: [as soon as the guitar enters with the head] That’s Jim playing “Bemsha Swing.” Is that Ron [Carter] on bass? It has that pickup sound. Jim is such a true improviser; like Monk, his rhythmic placement is so decisive. Oh, that’s Charlie, of course. Once he went into the walk, I recognized him. I have this record, and I’ve listened to it a couple times, but I’ve got to get deeper into it. Jim is on the complete edge of the music, reaching for so many things.


AFTER: Their timing is so undeniable, so clear, so unwavering, so combined with melodicism, imagination and motivic development, yet they’ll still surprise you. Even though all improvisers have certain phrases they rely on, these guys never sound like they’re relying on premeditated material. I hate it when people ask me who my favorite guitar player is, but if I was forced to [choose], it would probably be Jim Hall. He doesn’t cover every sonic possibility of the instrument, but he really cuts to the core. Like Bill Evans, he can give you that happy feeling even when he sounds sad.

When I was subbing for the great guitar player Larry Koonse at CalArts in 2003, I got a message on my voicemail that said, “Hi, Steve. It’s Charlie Haden. I’m supposed to do a solo concert at CalArts, but I’d rather do it with you if you’re available.” I’m thinking, “But I don’t even know you,” then I realized, “Oh, he must have talked to Paul [Motian].” I brought along my nylon-string guitar, and as soon as he saw it, he said, “Oh, can you play that?” Charlie, like Paul, loved acoustic guitar. I was nervous at first, but I immediately felt relaxed. Charlie’s sense of time was so welcoming that it was like sitting in the most comfortable chair in the world. You forgot about yourself and just felt like the music was supposed to happen.

  1. Ronald Shannon Jackson & the Decoding Society
    “Man Dance” (Man Dance, Antilles). Jackson, drums, composer; David Gordon, Zane Massey, saxophones; Vernon Reid, guitar; Melvin Gibbs, Reverend Bruce Johnson, electric basses. Recorded in 1982.

BEFORE: Oh, yeah! That’s really cool. It’s so swinging and cacophonous in the best possible sense. I thought I knew who it was, but it’s more tonal than Sonny Sharrock. This isn’t the guitarist’s project, is it? The guitar is so far back in the mix. Is that a tuba? Oh, man, this is hard. There are elements of Ornette, but I don’t think it’s him.


AFTER: That’s Vernon? That’s sneaky, because I’m used to hearing that other sound from Vernon, that “grunch.” It reminded me of Prime Time, the way Vernon’s guitar was a free-floating voice within the music. Like the Mary Halvorson piece, this has a thread through all its changes like it’s really going somewhere.

  1. Paul Motian
    “Dreamland” (I Have the Room Above Her, ECM). Motian, drums; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone; Bill Frisell, guitar; Thelonious Monk, composer. Recorded in 2004.

BEFORE: [during intro] That’s Paul and Bill, and Joe is probably coming along soon. Ah, there he is. It’s Monk’s “Unidentified Piano Solo,” which is how it’s labeled on Thelonious in Action, though it’s sometimes listed as “Dreamland.” What can you say about these guys? This is one of the greatest jazz trios of all time, in my humble opinion. It really makes me miss Paul to hear this. I heard this group so many times at the Village Vanguard. It was never short of amazing, but sometimes it went beyond that to a religious experience. The level of communication is astounding. I’m getting a little emotional hearing those guys.

AFTER: I met Bill in Bergen, Norway, when he was doing a duo tour with Joey Baron, and I was on the first Electric Bebop Band tour. Bill said, “Joey told me that you just bought a little flamenco guitar in Madrid. Can I check it out?” Bill came up to my room, I handed him the guitar, he hit a C chord and it sounded just like Bill Frisell. I went, “Wow, how is that possible?” It’s amazing to me that the infinitesimal fluctuations in the weight someone puts on each string can be a personal signature, even on a C chord. He’s like Miles; even when he uses a guitar synthesizer and distortion, you can still tell it’s him.


He’s been a friend ever since. He’s always so warm and welcoming. Bill and I helped Paul’s niece Cindy McGuirl work on those books, The Compositions of Paul Motian. It’s all the charts that Paul would give us, in his own hand.

  1. Ry Cooder
    “The Pearls/Tia Juana” (Jazz, Warner Bros.). Cooder, guitar, mandolin, tiple, harp, arrangement; Jelly Roll Morton, composer. Released in 1978.

BEFORE: It has an old-timey feel, but it’s not from that era. Whatever it is, it’s really well done. I started thinking about Eddie Lang or Lonnie Johnson. The recording doesn’t sound like that period, but the feeling does. I’m also hearing Caribbean and Mexican flavors. It’s like going on a journey through that landscape; it’s not the same the whole way through. There are all kinds of guitars on there. Nice.

AFTER: Oh, Ry Cooder. That makes perfect sense. He always gets a 100-percent authentic feel, because he’s part of that lineage of authenticity. If he doesn’t know the music, he immerses himself in it until he does. This had so much musical depth, so incredibly soulful. That was great. I would have believed it was coming from a musician who only does that Creole music. JT


Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs heard in this session:

Originally Published