CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

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 (photo: Antonio Porcar)

Beauty in the Angular

What attracts such praise are exquisitely constructed performances, such as the new album’s solo guitar arrangement of the Johnny Mandel/Johnny Mercer song “Emily.” Written for the 1964 movie The Americanization of Emily, the tune has been recorded by Bill Evans, Paul Desmond, and Frank Sinatra.

Monder’s version opens with a pristine, pared-down statement of the melody, soon transformed into a thread through a sequence of arpeggios played against a second set of guitar arpeggios. The two parts have different rhythmic and melodic patterns, but they create harmonies that pull at each other and then snap together with great satisfaction. The arrangement would be impressive if it were played on two guitars or at two different times, but Monder does it all simultaneously on a single guitar.

“The challenge,” he says, “is independence of fingers. You want the melody to come out and the accompaniment to sound supportive, but you also want the two parts to be independent rhythmically and dynamically. It’s counterintuitive when you’re using one hand to create different parts with different fingers, so you have to forget about what each finger is doing and just think about the melody soaring above the counterpoint. I like to hear it because it’s the most musical approach. If you’re playing everything at the same dynamic, it’s not as interesting. You have the pleasure of the melody but it’s also unpredictable, and less predictable is desirable.”

“Emily” reflects Monder’s most frequent sound: a translucent tone, slow decay, patient pacing and legato phrasing that pianist Frank Kimbrough once described in this magazine as “ethereal, dark and mysterious.” But he is also capable of noisy guitar crunch, as he proves on the new album’s version of the movie theme “Goldfinger.” Still, the melodic material shines through as much as it does on “Emily.”

“I prioritize the quality of lyricism in my music,” he confesses, “that quality of melodic resonance, though that’s different for everyone. Something that’s angular, for example, might not seem lyrical to some people, but I can see the beauty in it. I’ve always been attracted to musical ideas—what the artist is trying to convey. For me, that translates into melodies and skews improvisation to the development of ideas and away from preconceived patterns.”

By “the development of ideas,” he means an approach to playing that always refers back to the starting point rather than going off on tangents that lose the connection to the original idea. Melodic variations should infer the theme; harmonic elaboration and rhythmic alterations should build upon previous material. If the listener can follow the succession of ideas and hear how each step borrows from the previous and leads to the next, the piece is more likely to tell a story—and that’s what Monder likes.

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“What’s interesting to me is to hear someone’s creative process in real time,” he says. “When I hear a musician actually create a sequence of events in the moment and come up with solutions that are inevitable and yet I didn’t see them coming, those are my favorite soloists to listen to. Something like that bears more listenings, because it’s more compositional; one thing leads to another rather than just leaping about.

“When I solo, I try to commit to the first idea I play,” he continues. “Taking an idea from the tune you’re playing is always great, but even if the idea pops up in the moment, the important thing is to devote yourself to it. Because if you really commit to an idea, anything you play will be relating to that inspiration, either obviously or subtly.”

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.