It's not uncommon to hear talk about artists spreading their stylistic umbrella so wide that figuring out who they are becomes a challenge. It's not so much that their personal voices are unclear; rather, it requires examining a wide cross-section of recordings. In simpler times past, artists might evolve, but any single release could present a clear conduit to their creative predilections.
Still, jazz has always had its share of artists who needed to be assessed over a larger body of workand considerable time. Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock...any of these artists might be inappropriately pigeonholed were one to select a single recording from their discographies as the sole determinant of their musical voices.
It's safe to say that guitarist Ben Monder, with a résumé including Maria Schneider's Orchestra, Guillermo Klein's Los Gauchos, and Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band, fits this description. Oceana may not provide the complete picture, but it gives a broader view of Monder than most single releases, and it's unquestionably his most fully-realized record to date. It combines complex through-composition with influences ranging from contemporary classical music to Americana and progressive rock. Monder's tinted filter means these influences end up taking on more personal meaning.
It would be too easy to describe the opening solo acoustic guitar piece "Still Motion" as Metheny-informed. Certainly the folksy fingerpicking comes from that space, but Monder's melodies are more abstract than Metheny's accessible lyricism. "Double Sun," a solo electric guitar composition, is darker, evolving gradually and with periodically emerging melodies approaching pretty, only to ultimately be consumed by its hauntingly bleak ambience.
The title track features bassist Kermit Driscoll, drummer Ted Poor, and the wordless vocals of Theo Bleckmann. A knottily complex twelve-tone exercise in arpeggiation, it suggests how King Crimson's Robert Fripp might sound were he to take a softer approach and base it on a less constricted harmonic foundation. A series of episodes traverse a cross-spectrum of dynamics, creating an atmospheric form without ever really defining a consistent melody. Equally ethereal is "Echolalia," where Bleckmann builds a more discernable theme over the trio's soft cushion of arpeggios, brushwork, and long bass tones.
Skuli Sverrisson replaces Driscoll for "Rooms of Light" and "Spectre." On the former, Monder assumes a more aggressive stance with an overdriven tone that matches Sverrisson's powerful attack. This episodic, long-form piece runs the gamut from complex progressive rock to a soft but enigmatic respite, before the rock pulse returns and Monder delivers one of the only clearly delineated solos on the discreferencing, to some degree, Allan Holdsworth in its rapid-fire legato style. The somber "Spectre" closes the album, with space and sound equal partners; the decay of notes is more meaningful than their gentle attack.
Keeping overt soloing at a minimum, Oceana defies any conventional jazz definition. But it's an album that could only be made by musicians versed in the jazz language and, consequently, deserves to be heard by those open-minded enough to see and feel its subtle connections.