Ben Monder: Oceana

It may be named after bodies of water, but Ben Monder’s long-awaited new album has a predominantly airy feel. That’s partly a given–whether on electric or acoustic guitar, Monder heeds a floating sensibility–but he also encourages the idea. Among the album’s seven tracks are “Light,” “Rooms of Light” and “Double Sun”; the only aquatic cut is “Oceana” itself. And one of the most prominent timbres is the unearthly falsetto of Theo Bleckmann, wordlessly soaring like a gull. (So maybe it’s a seagull, but still.)

Whatever the element, this is a brilliantly distinctive album. Monder’s shimmering arpeggios and shifting rhythms, and the deep synchronicity of bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Ted Poor, make the title track a serious opus. “Echolalia,” a lilting samba, offers a personal miniaturization of the Pat Metheny Group. “Rooms of Light” finds Skuli Sverrisson replacing Driscoll for some razor’s-edge fusion, complete with fuzz tones and choppy meters; the bassist stays aboard for “Spectre,” which sounds as diaphanous as its name suggests.

Remarkably, Monder delivers two album highlights unaccompanied. “Rooms of Light” and “Still Motion,” his solo-guitar pieces, are miracles of technical and emotional expression. It’s hard to imagine another player reaching these particular heights, or depths.

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).