Since his debut album in 1995, Ben Monder has reshaped jazz guitar with a keen eye for history – lending an unmistakable voice to the work of giants including David Bowie, Lee Konitz, Maria Schneider, Paul Motian, Ingrid Jensen, and Tim Berne – and a firm grip on the future with beguiling, idiosyncratic compositions. For the first time since his appearance in Guillermo Klein’s Los Guachos big band at the Wexner Center, thanks to local guitar hero Zakk Jones who opens, Monder graces Columbus’ premiere intimate listening room, Filament, for a solo guitar performance on November 23 (tickets here), I was lucky enough to talk with Monder by phone about the mesmerizing double-album he comes to town promoting, Day After Day.
Day After Day is Monder’s first album solely taking other composer’s material. The first disc finds him expanding his traditional solo features into a full record while the second works classic and surprising tunes over in a trio mode with Matt Brewer on bass and longtime drummer Ted Poor. Nate Chinen said of the record, “The constant throughout is an exquisite approach to harmonic voicing and tonal detail.” Writing for Downbeat, Jeff Potter called it “A rewarding roller coaster.” Vinnie Sperrazza said, “He seems to embody a contemporary trend away from outsized egos and macho megalomaniacs who dominate their musicians and audiences with their creative and destructive charisma.”
About opening himself up to the solo form in a greater way, Monder said, “Three or four years ago I [realized] I’d accumulated all these pieces and I wanted to perform them. And wanted to get more comfortable [playing solo] because it’s inherently not that comfortable by itself. So I just sort of started exploring and started attacking it that way. It’s also a lot easier to travel by myself than to put people up in hotels and keep them [with me], although it gets a little lonely out there.”
As he worked up that solo repertoire, Monder also dug back into covers and standards. “You start learning playing standards; as much as I was playing my own and other people’s original music, I always left room for, you know, the quote-unquote ‘jazz gig’ where you just played tunes that everybody knows and improvise on them; kind of a common meeting place.”
“More recently, I started adding pop tunes to the repertoire just because they were, in general, more meaningful to me – tunes I knew when I was a kid or from various records that were fun to improvise on. I think the first one I started doing was the Cream tune ‘World of Pain,’ from Disraeli Gears, one that I’m listening to since I was a kid. [I kept] sort of collecting them and when the trio [for the second disc] went into the studio two or three years ago, we ended up recording over 20 different tunes.” He chucked, “The ones that made the record were the ones that came out best. Or well at all.”
Some of the catchiest earworms and most gripping performances throughout Day After Day retain the essence of the original tune but frame it in surprising contexts and take a journey with the original. I played the title track over and over, marveling at the way Monder and trio retain the melancholic sweetness of the Badfinger hit but recast it on an epic, swirling scale. I asked about that track, starting with questioning if there’s anything sacred when he chooses a cover.
He laughed, “I don’t really take anything that sacred, [but] I wouldn’t do anything that goes against my own sense of taste. I actually didn’t even intend to play that tune. It was at the end of one of the trio sessions and for fun, I just wanted to do some ambient soundscape things. And actually my guitar broke, the whole jack, some wires came undone and the guitar was broken. I randomly chose this miniature toy Les Paul that was just in the studio, but it was intact, you know? I just put it through all the pedals, turned everything up and started playing. The melody just occurred to me to start playing it. In the back of my mind, I was like, well if I do this then it’ll actually be in keeping with the rest of the record. I’d played the tune before on gigs, and improvised on it, but not like that.”
I was also struck by how many of the songs on Day After Day adapt tunes best known as vehicles for powerful singers, especially (for me), Florence and the Machine’s “Never Let Me Go” and “The Midnight Sun Will Never Set,” made famous by Sarah Vaughan. Monder confirmed his interest in the voice. “ Generally, the voice is what conveys the melody and that’s what’s most important in these tunes. I”m trying to sing them, as much as a guitar can. Even sometimes when I’m coming up with arrangements, I’m thinking of the notes as various voices of a choir, voice leading around us as if I were actually arranging for voices.”
That mention led me to “O Sacrum Convivium,” another favorite track of mine and an arrangement of an Olivier Messiaen choral piece. Monder said, “That was a suggestion of, actually, Matt Brewer. He heard me playing something or other and said ‘You know, that reminds me of this Messiaen piece. I was familiar with some of Messiaen’s work but hadn’t heard it. I found the sheet music arranged for four voices and it was pretty much playable as written for guitar. Later, it turned out that all these other jazz improvisers had played it. I thought it was doing something original,” he laughed, “And it’s like I was doing ‘All The Things You Are.’”
For the tour coming to Filament, Monder promises a mix of his original material and the covers featured on Day After Day. “I did a few solo gigs in Europe, I’m coming around to a solidified setlist. It includes a Ralph Towner tune, ‘Anthem.’ Joel Harrison does an Alternative Guitar Summit and this past March it was a tribute to Towner. Seven or eight guitarists, and I got assigned ‘Anthem’ and another tune, then Joel interviewed Ralph at the end. [Towner’s] one of the biggest influences in my life so that was a little nerve-wracking, but he was super nice.”
Don’t miss your opportunity to be close and personal with one of the finest guitarists working today.