Monder, now 57, grew up in White Plains and at age 11 found a cheap, nylon-string guitar in his mother’s closet. It was a lot more fun than the violin he’d been playing, and soon he was teaching himself songs off the radio. By 14, he was taking lessons from John Stowell, a jazz guitarist who was soon to leave upstate New York and go on tour with bassist David Friesen. When the teenager showed up for his lessons, he’d hear Stowell practicing jazz tunes and find himself spellbound. Soon Monder was trying the tunes too. By 17, he was studying with Chuck Wayne, who’d already recorded with Gil Evans and Tony Bennett.
“I’ve never found it that hard to balance jazz and pop,” Monder claims. “When I was young, most of my paying work was in rock and funk bands—playing weddings and top-40 gigs—and then I’d work on the jazz at home. I went to the University of Miami for one year and to Queens College for two years. But I got tired of school; I felt it was getting in the way of my practicing, and I was already working a lot.”
Soon he was establishing contacts with musicians of his own generation such as Donny McCaslin, Tim Ries, Guillermo Klein, Bill McHenry, Josh Roseman, and Theo Bleckmann, who would become his collaborators over the next 30 years.
“I first heard Ben when we played a session together in the early ’90s just after I moved to New York City,” McCaslin recalls. “I remember being struck by the depth of his chordal language and his tremendous ears. When he’d comp, I could feel his utter presence in what was being played and when he’d get into soloing with chordal voice-leading, it was stunning.”
In 1992, Maria Schneider called Monder out of the blue to play on her album Evanescence. “I immediately loved her music,” Monder remembers. “She’s a great orchestrator and harmonic thinker; I especially liked how well she wrote for the guitar. Our Monday night gig at Visiones was the place where those things came to fruition in the mid-’90s. Playing in a band as large and distinctive as that is apples and oranges versus playing with a trio or quartet.”
“Sometimes I’d call him to ask if something I was writing was playable,” Schneider adds. “I’d hear him grab for his guitar and say, ‘I think, no.’ But suddenly I’d hear the groan of him stretching himself into some contortion, and he’d say, ‘Wait, wait, yeah, write it.’ I’d be reticent to go ahead with it, thinking no one else on earth could play it, but he’d ask for it. That has made it difficult for others to play some of my music.”
It was through Schneider that Monder got to play with David Bowie. When the rock legend in 2014 invited the jazz big-band leader to collaborate on recording his new composition “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” she brought Monder along. “That ended up being one of my favorite pieces by Maria,” Monder says. “I thought she was really able to effectively interpret the tortured nature of Bowie’s narrative through her choices. Of course, it was a thrill to meet him in person.”
When Schneider decided she didn’t have enough time to continue the collaboration due to her previous commitments, she recommended that Bowie work with saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s group, which included Monder handling Bowie’s original instrument. With fewer musicians involved, the sessions for Blackstar, Bowie’s last album before his unexpected death, were more intimate, and more individual input was encouraged.
“If we had an idea of something we wanted to try,” Monder reports, “we were free to do that. That liberated us to really experiment; the atmosphere was really inspiring. I’m not trying to superimpose my jazz background on a rock song; you take every piece as it is. I’m trying to do the most appropriate thing for the tune. Maybe I can pull out different voicings that I wouldn’t know if I’d never played jazz.”
On that album, as on every Monder project, you hear the independence of his fingers, the translucence of his tone, the shapeshifting of the harmonies, and the primacy of an emotional melody. There’s a vocal quality to much of his playing, and that’s no coincidence.
“I’ve always loved choral and chamber music,” he adds, “and sometimes I like to think of the strings of the guitar as individual voices or instruments. This approach suggests counterpoint and textures that I might not otherwise come up with. The guitar has a vast expressive range, and I want to exploit all the possibilities it offers.”