Ben Monder – Hydra (2013)

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An authority no less than Pat Metheny once said of fellow guitarist Ben Monder, “Monder is a very evolved kind of musician — great chord voicing and just excellent playing.” Before even coming across that quote, I caught a Metheny vibe on Monder’s upcoming 7th album, Hydra. The guitar chops are present and accounted for on this by one of the most in-demand jazz guitarists out there today. But there’s also a clear musical vision, unusual harmonic structures, vivid melodies and wordless vocals bolstering those melodies. Sounds a lot like Metheny, right?

Monder’s been making records for sixteen years now and in fairness to him, he’s well beyond replicating someone else’s style. He doesn’t employ the same tone or licks as PM, and his compositions are often more layered and mutative, too. But the once or present sideman to Paul Motian, Pete Robbins, Maria Schneider, Guillermo Klein, Noah Preminger and Bill McHenry makes a record that will draw in listeners as much for the voicings, the concept and the creative ideas as much for his guitar playing. Just as we’ve come to approach recordings by…well, you know.

As alluded to earlier, Monder uses vocals, but he uses them primarily without lyrics. Instead, they roughly take the place of where a keyboard might go, to enhance the melodic lines. For that task, he enlists mainly his frequent collaborator Theo Blackmann to handle that task, and Gian Slater or Martha Cluver when a female vocal is needed. Ted Poor mans the drums and John Patitucci and Skuli Sverrisson take turns on bass, thus forming a trio plus voices.

Each of these eight songs presents a distinct mood, a malleable motif that doesn’t follow conventional song structure; it just flows. “Elysium” features rich, layered arpeggios played glissando, swirling around Gian Slater’s floating vocal. Those layers then get stripped away one by one to end the song.

For “Hydra,” the twenty-four minute epic, Monder displays unique chordal expressions, a rising and falling progression over a convulsive beat by Poor. Blackmann’s multi-layered voice acts as harmonic marker for this freely streaming song, allowing Monder much freedom to expound on that motif. Slowing down the pace in the middle only uncovers more of the luscious complexity of the song. Current ideas get challenged and eventually overcome by new ideas. The song traverses through more episodes of different tempos, but those episodes are all well connected in this very penetrating, restless performance.

“Aplysia” is impressionistic and moody; a cascade of voices sung by Blackmann occasionally rising up to add harmonic depth. “39” refers to the length of the extended beat cycle. Monder’s intricate fingerpicking on acoustic guitar is rendering an intricate composition. He also takes over on bass and reveals great synergy with Poor’s own beats. “Yugen” is a quiet song of isolation, where Monder’s pillowy guitar doubles up with Cluver’s vocals in performing an uncommon twelve-tone progression.

“Tredecadrome” rocks hard in a thirteen beat time signature as Blackmann’s soaring vocal and a second guitar fashion a harmony line at half tempo. The metal crunch takes a break to give way to Blackmann’s stratified, celestial harmonies, and then the two conflicting forms are thrown together with peculiarly good results for the finale. “Postlude” is really a continuation of “Tredecadrome,” but with the bass line inverted and the vocals all bunched together to create a dramatic coda. The gentle folk tune “Charlotte’s Song” uses actual lyrics, taken from the text of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and sung by Blackmann.

As this is Monder’s first solo record in eight years, Hydra makes good use of the long time between releases but it’s also good enough to make one wonder why Monder hadn’t invested more time into his solo career. It’s clear from Hydra that he’s a well-rounded artist who has a whole lot of innovative things to say musically whenever the podium is his.

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Hydra is tentatively set for release in late August, via Sunnyside Records. Visit Ben Monder’s website for more info. feature photo credit: Bill Douthart

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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