Ben Monder might seem to be quietly everywhere in creative music—famously playing on David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar along with generation hotshots such as Mark Guiliana and Donny McCaslin. Monder has also been essential to so many other recordings and performances with the likes of vocalist Theo Bleckman, arranger Maria Schneider, saxophonist Bill McHenry, composer Guillermo Klein, saxophonist Lee Konitz, and drummer Paul Motian. His own recordings go back over 20 years, but his playing is so accommodating, so sensitive, that he has never felt like an overpowering artist.
Day After Day is another example of how Monder can be brilliant and understated at the same time. This is a two-volume set: a program of standards played on solo electric guitar, and a set of 1960s and 1970s pop tunes for the trio of Monder, drummer Ted Poor, and bassist Matt Brewer. In each set, Monder, the guitar player, could be said to disappear into the songs he is playing. But in another sense, these two volumes shout Monder’s creativity from the rooftops—because his arrangements and conceptions of the music are unique and brilliant.
The solo guitar pieces are quiet and gentle. But they are the farthest thing from typical. Monder’s arrangement of “My One and Only Love”, for example, recasts this oft-played standard in dazzling new harmonies, a set of chords that maintain the beauty of the written melody but somehow cause it to sound more mysterious, more daring. From the first notes of this performance, you can see that Monder has spent time to arrange things with special care, as an opening arpeggio uses a part of the first line of the melody but then does not complete it, simply making an opening suggestion. Once the real statement begins, Monder reimagines the harmonies, yes, but he does it by playing independent lines of melody at the same time. They weave into the new harmonies, moving contrarily and then together, swung despite the classical suggestion. At the end of the bridge, rather than returning to the “A” section, Monder returns to the introductory arpeggios, extending them time, making them stranger and more wondrous, before restating the first theme. There is no improvisation, but it hardly matters.
Even more magical is the version of “Emily”, the wonderful Johnny Mandel song. Monder plays the entire melody, but he plays it as part a fast fingerpicked arrangement that uses a swung set of eighth notes, giving it a completely different feeling while still retaining its waltz time. This portion of the performance sounds like it should require at least two guitarists at the same time, yet Monder plays all the counterpoint in real time. His improvisation retains the signature three-note lick (“Em-i-leee”) in various places, but also seems to wander outside the harmonic structure for much of the time, taking advantage of the freedom that comes from playing without other musicians. Monder doesn’t make a pretty song prettier, but he invests it with a huge internal world, a sense that the original contained all this incredible space that you hadn’t heard before.
“The Windows of the World” is a Burt Bacharach melody originally sung by Dionne Warwick, and Monder plays it more straight, perhaps because those Bacharach-ian harmonies and sense of movement can’t be beat. Here, however, Monder’s improvisation certainly moves beyond the harmonic structure, beginning as an extension of it, then taking one of the motifs and simply spinning it through a series of repetitions. This leads him into the repetition of a three-note descending figure that he can change slightly in a series more and more assertive repetitions. Just when you think the song has been lost, he shifts back into the tune for a quick finish. Your head will be delightfully spinning.
Monder’s solo recital also makes magic out of “Never Let Me Go”, songs by Henry Mancini, Quincey Jones, and a hymn. Each contains quiet wonders.
The trio set is a wonderfully varied tribute to Monder’s childhood roots in 1960s and 1970s pop. “Only Yesterday” is a song by the Carpenters, and the trio approaches it as a medium to an up-tempo jazz standard that is set to a popping groove rhythm rather than swing. Still, Monder’s clean-toned improvisation brings to mind modern jazz masters such as John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, and John Scofield—a group to which Monder deserves membership. A similar approach animates a funky take on “The Guitar Man” by the unfairly forgotten group, Bread. Monder teases the melody with a coy bit of staccato plucking, which extends into an inventive solo that pops and bends strings with humor and blues touches. He tap dances outside the harmonies a bit, but it is done with such a playful sense of rhythm that it doesn’t seem daring as much as delightful.
“Galveston” is a Jimmy Webb tune and hit for Glen Campbell in 1969, when Monder was a little kid. Monder doesn’t mess around with it much, giving Poor and Brewer the task of simply grooving it as a pop song, over which groove Monder spins happy variations. You practically feel the leader looking back at time in his life when things were happily simpler, but the tune ends with a burst of surprise: Monder overdrives his guitar for a solo unsupported by chords, suddenly sounding just a bit like Hendrix over Poor’s increasingly raucous groove—”Galveston” becoming an expression of a wider range of American pop sensibility, all of which Monder knows and channels.
Two tracks feature Monder’s acoustic guitar. Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” gives him the chance to produce a beautiful tone, taking advantage of the percussive sounds of fingers actually on strings, improvising a solo that is not a fleet single-note line but instead an orchestral set of lines and chords that expand the song and make the trio sound open and expansive. The Fleetwood Mac song “Dust” turns out to be an ideal song for a set of gorgeous solos, particularly from Brewer’s acoustic bass, which flies over the chord changes, making them sound positively Gershwin-esque.
Monder’s trio also gets exploratory. The Bond theme, “Goldfinger”, is given a fat, overdriven treatment, delve into noise/metal you might even say. The Beatles’ “Long, Long, Long” is a moody exploration that might have fit on the guitarist’s one ECM recording, with its impressionistic approach and free interplay with Poor’s drums. The closing (and title) track by Badfinger, “Day After Day”, is a sonic wall of guitar texture that rings in harmonic abstraction, waves of sound shimmering like a wave of light.
You come to the end of Day After Day and sense that you’ve just heard one guitar player who can be many guitar players, someone who has mastered a huge vocabulary of the instrument and from a few different traditions. Ben Monder’s label is “jazz” mainly because that is the only category that might be flexible enough to contain his own ability to find so many sounds, to investigate so much harmony and melody, to negotiate so much creativity. It might be a fair criticism of his playing to say that it doesn’t have a signature tone or melodic sensibility like Pat Metheny’s or a willfully distinctive angle like Bill Frisell’s. But it is just as fair to say that Ben Monder has developed a range of expressive ability that is as wide and creative as any guitarist in the music today.
And on Day After Day he demonstrates that just a part of that range—as a soloist and the leader of a trio—proves him to be a modern six-string master.