The Understated Appeal of Ben Monder

The veteran guitarist, who has played with some of the biggest names in jazz and pop, melds his interests on his latest album, Day After Day

Ben Monder is not a showy guitarist, and perhaps that accounts for his low profile among the jazz public. When you listen to his work—whether his original compositions on his earlier solo albums, his treatment of pop standards on his new album Day After Day, or his backing of bandleaders ranging from Paul Motian and Guillermo Klein to David Bowie—the first thing you notice is his sheer lyricism. His melodic inventions are rarely predictable, but they often seem inevitable and immensely pleasurable.

These qualities are not in vogue with listeners craving speed, novelty, edge, and complexity. And his stoic stage presence—soft-spoken and stationary with monkish salt-and-pepper hair topping a long, lanky frame—is unlikely to demand notice. But the intricacy at least is there in Monder’s music, tucked away in the elegant counterpoint and altered voicings underneath the tunefulness. The more you ask yourself, “What are those harmonies and how did he create them?” the more you recognize the ingenious concepts in his invention and the consummate technique in his playing. Other musicians get it.

“I’d heard little bits of his playing here and there,” remembers Bill Frisell, “and he’s always sounded good. But then one night, I went down to the Cornelia Street Café to see my friend Kermit Driscoll play bass with Ben and Ted Poor on drums. They knocked me out. That was the night I thought, ‘Uh oh, wait a minute, this is serious.’ I realized he wasn’t fooling around; he already had his own sound, his own architecture. He was taking things further than most. Way further.”

Something similar happened to Maria Schneider. “Rick Margitza was playing in my band and he knew I wanted to add guitar,” she recalls. “He felt Ben could be wonderful on my music. I immediately fell in love with Ben’s playing, and it added a depth to the band. He has jaw-dropping technique and a mind-blowing way with harmony. You should see the faces and the head shakes in the band when he’s playing—that says it all.”

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.