Guitarist-composer Ben Monder’s Hydra, his first album as a leader in eight years, is esoteric but you’d be wrong to file it under “avant-garde”; it’s too technically brilliant and radiantly produced, and its personnel includes postbop and fusion A-listers like John Patitucci. And while it is a demanding recording—Monder is fond of long-form composition, as the 24-minute title track makes clear, and he’s no stranger to Schoenberg—it is often strikingly beautiful. But Monder’s kind of splendor has more to do with chordal texture than memorable melody. His angular, tumbling, hybrid-picked polytonality seems to reflect compositional strategies led by his chosen instrument; perhaps that’s why he’s one of the few thoroughly modern jazz pickers who can evoke John Fahey. His use of wordless voice, especially that of his longtime collaborator Theo Bleckmann, belongs more to chamber traditions than to jazz. (Impressively, Bleckmann is featured at length but he never wears out his welcome, so inviting is his core timbre.)
The other major factor in Monder’s making the odd accessible has to do with heroism. Like Kurt Rosenwinkel he’s a role model among student musicians, and it isn’t difficult to see why: When he applies distortion to his liquid tone and cuts loose, he puts most rock guitar gods to shame. And the temporally maddening riff exercise “Tredecadrome” could earn him new constituents from the metal and prog scenes.