Ben Monder in a ‘Universe All His Own’

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Ben Monder’s new double album features the guitarist in solo and trio settings.

(Photo: John Rogers)

There are few guitarists whose vocabulary on the instrument renders them truly inimitable. Ben Monder is one of them. His cascading streams of notes, daring intervallic leaps, pristinely picked arpeggiations and sheer command of harmony make him a singular figure. Monder’s display of chops on a string of albums—spanning from 1995’s Flux (Songlines) to 2013’s Hydra (Sunnyside)—dumbfounded guitarists, prompting one awed colleague to dub him “Mind Bender.”

“Ben is in a universe all his own,” said Maria Schneider, in whose orchestra Monder has been a steady presence since 1992. “His sonic worlds are so rich, technically virtuosic, harmonically beyond belief and mind-blowingly unique that it’s stupefying.”

Following his spacious, atmospheric ECM offering from 2016, Amorphae, Monder has returned to Sunnyside with something completely different in Day After Day. Rather than showcasing his own intricate compositions, Monder presents his distinctive take on jazz standards and pop tunes from the ’60s and ’70s on the two-CD set. “All my records under my own name were through-composed long-form compositions, but I’ve always enjoyed playing standards and pop tunes on gigs,” said the 56-year-old guitarist, who also played and recorded with Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band and appeared on David Bowie’s swan song, Blackstar. “The idea was to document something that I’ve always done, yet never actually recorded.”

Monder presents two distinct approaches on Day After Day. The first disc shows his more analytical side in a solo setting, performing meticulously crafted covers of tunes ranging from Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” to Olivier Messiaen’s formidable choral work “O Sacrum Convivium.”

On the second disc, the guitarist is joined by bassist Matt Brewer and longtime drummer Ted Poor for spontaneous interpretations of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dust,” Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” and others. The title track is a provocative cover of Badfinger’s 1971 hit single, rendered barely recognizable by Monder’s swirling, Brian Eno-esque ambient abstractions. “The melody is pretty hidden within all the reverb, but it’s definitely there,” he said.

Although Monder has been revered for his harmonic knowledge and linear concept, he’s not afraid to stomp on a distortion pedal when the mood strikes. On Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston,” he treads into the Sonny Sharrock zone with a skronking solo. Distortion also served Monder well on his raucous rendition of John Barry’s “Goldfinger.” “That tune almost demands distortion,” he laughed. “That progression of E to C just calls out for some anger. Or aggression, anyway.”

Monder recently completed a second recording with Dan Weiss’ metal-jazz quartet Starebaby, a gig that demands distortion at all times. In August, he goes into the studio to record Maria Schneider’s next orchestra project, Data Lords.

“Ben is the most dedicated instrumentalist I’ve ever met,” said saxophonist and Day After Day co-producer Patrick Zimmerli. “Everything he does emanates from his extraordinarily rich and deep relationship with the guitar. He’s always been an obsessive practicer, known for his extended sessions—occasionally stretching to 24 consecutive hours—and he continues his elaborate explorations of his instrument to this day ... .

“But Ben is no mere technical materialist in search of virtuosity for its own sake,” Zimmerli continued. “His practice has always been in the service of his vision—his quest to find the new chord, the new sound, to gain more flexibility and command as an improviser, to be able to take not only the guitar but music to places it has never been before.” DB