Jean-Luc Ponty’s new American label, World Pacific Jazz, wasted little time in marketing their jazz violin phenomenon. Ponty was quickly paired with WPJ mainstay Gerald Wilson and his big band for an album of mainstream jazz/swing, Electric Connection. Wilson wrote the arrangements, Ponty provides the solos and a few original compositions, George Duke plays the piano, but the connection never really happens. Most of the time, Ponty’s violin seems out of place in the music or, more to the point, Wilson’s arrangements make space for the violin but rarely make good use of it. The idea of a violin in a jazz setting, especially one so free and fluid, is a novel and exciting concept. In my opinion, it deserved a novel and exciting setting, not a standard set of jazz/swing/funk that might have come from the soundtrack to a second-rate crime film. The rhythm section of Paul Humphrey and Bob West is at least sympathetic; Duke is criminally undermiked. If you’re interested in Ponty’s earliest work, I would start with the live recording at Thee Experience featuring the George Duke Trio. That show was an electric affair which gave the violin plenty of breathing room. On Electric Connection, unfortunately, the violin is something of a caged bird. You’ll encounter some nice solos (“Hypomode Del Sol,” “Forget”) and perhaps develop a deeper appreciation for the violin as a jazz instrument, but nothing on here will change your world. The kindess of critics toward this album is likely due to deference to the violinist himself; the music itself is merely adequate and ill-fitting.
Kronomyth 5.0: ELECTRIC NIGHT. World Pacific Jazz founder Dick Bock had the bright idea to expose Jean-Luc Ponty’s jazz fusion to rock audiences and booked him at the Sunset Strip pyschedelic stop, Thee Experience. Too bad that lightbulb didn’t go off before they made the disappointing Electric Connection. Slimmed down to a quartet of Ponty, George Duke (now on electric piano), John Heard and Dick Berk, The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with The George Duke Trio is an electrifying evening of jazz fusion that served as something of a breakout for both Ponty and Duke. It was in this setting that Frank Zappa heard and, later, joined their pair on stage to expand the lexicon of jazz. Ponty’s electric violin is both beautiful and grotesque, a creature of the post-Miles fusion forest where noise and art intertwine, yet it’s a new species, interesting to be sure, but not entirely alien. I think it’s this grotesque beauty that captured Frank Zappa’s imagination. As the first effective example of Ponty’s playing in a jazz/rock fusion setting, The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience should be experienced. As an arranger, Duke is far less rigid than Gerald Wilson, and that freedom allows Ponty’s violin to soar. Their versions of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” and Wolfgang Dauner’s luminescent “Pamukkale” are highlights. Listening to this concert, you get a sense of the excitement that audiences had when they first heard Ponty some fifty years ago (hard to believe, I know). At first, I wasn’t that enamored of this recording, approaching it as I did from the future, but from the perspective of his previous recordings this is a giant step forward. [Note: This concert was re-packaged overseas as Live In Los Angeles. The French version is a sort of hybrid of the two, prominently featuring the word “Experience” on the album cover.]
A cleverly staged car wreck between Zappa and Captain Beefheart that, despite the creative velocity of the pair at the time, wasn’t the big bang some had hoped for. The disappointment of Bongo Fury might be that both artists weren’t looking to do something new together, but simply do what they do together. There are songs that represent an even union of sorts, where Beefheart takes the lead and Zappa’s band lays down the groundwork: the twisted “Debra Kadabra,” the sort-of-a-cowboy-song “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead” and “200 Years Old” (the last two forming a kind of a bicentennial medley). These may be a little grittier and bluesier than Zappa’s usual work, but fans should eventually warm up to them. Beefheart also presents his greasy, look-what-I-found-under-the-refrigerator poetry on a pair of tracks: “Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top” (which introduces the “bongo fury” theme) and “Man With The Woman Head.” Frank even answers in kind with his own story, “Muffin Man,” that starts like a carbon copy of “Evelyn, A Modified Dog” before launching into a brilliant guitar solo. Zappa fans will take solace in the tracks that sound most like his usual work from this period: “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy” (cut from the same cloth as “Camarillo Brillo”) and “Advance Romance.” However, those fans would do better to pick up Over-Nite Sensation, Roxy & Elsewhere, The Grand Wazoo, One Size Fits All… well, you get the point. For the best blending of Beefheart and Zappa, seek ye Hot Rats. Two heads are better than one in the world of bongos, but in the live/studio world of Bongo Fury maybe not so much.
Kronomyth 6.0: LET BE BE FINALE OF SEEM. This is a live/studio hybrid that has all the earmarks of a contract closer. In other words, Clarke likely owed Nemperor two more albums on his contract and decided to kick in an album’s worth of live material to hit the magic number of albums owed, which would apparently be six. Anyway, that’s just speculation on my part, and of no particular interest. The music on I Wanna Play For You, now that’s interesting. I find it amazing that a bass guitarist could build a robust live repertoire around their instrument. Clarke is an extraordinary musician, of course; the sounds he coaxes out of those four strings would make a Stratavarius blush. The live performances are excellent; I sort of wish they had preserved the concerts intact, since I would have loved to hear songs like “Silly Putty,” “Yesterday Princess” or “Dayride” in a live setting. Instead, you’ll have to settle for a six-minute sampler called “My Greatest Hits.” The studio material has a live energy to it and features a few funk/pop/disco numbers that point forward to the Clarke/Duke Project. “The Streets of Philadelphia” is the best of these; in fact, I’ve always regarded it as the heart of the album. I Wanna Play For You feels instantly familiar, not just in the sense that you’ve heard “School Days” and “Quiet Afternoon” before; even the new songs (e.g., “Together Again,” “Jamaican Boy”) arrive like old friends. In that sense, the record wraps around your mind like a favorite shirt (I know, that’s a crappy analogy); it feels good whenever you put it on. (Apparently, there was a 2-for-1 semicolon sale at that shirt store.) The Epic adventures that followed were too populist; the last emperor is this Nemperor of nice dreams.
Kronomyth 8.0: GEORGE AND STANLEY MAKE A CAMEO. When George Duke and Stanley Clarke signed with Epic to record an album together, the label apparently expected a jazz fusion album. I’m with the labels this time. As a fan of Stanley Clarke’s music (with and without RTF) and Frank Zappa, I was expecting a Journey To Love. Instead, what Epic and the rest of us got was a Top 40 R&B/disco album. Now, if you’d been paying close attention, you would have heard this kind of music creeping into Stanley Clarke’s records, so the commercial direction of The Clarke/Duke Project can’t be called a complete surprise. But if you’re expecting me to heap praise upon it, I would kindly point you in the direction of a different site, perhaps one called Discoography. I listen to Stanley Clarke records to hear him cut loose on the bass, not to sing “I Just Want To Love You.” In the record’s defense, it’s only about half an album of sappy disco music; the other half features smart funk that suggests Was (Not Was) (e.g., “Finding My Way”) and Cameo (e.g., “Let’s Get Started”). As a bonus, you’ll hear what is probably the funkiest version of “Louie Louie” ever recorded. The pair’s commercial acumen paid off when the album reached the Top 40 (and topped the Jazz charts according to Billboard, the same company that gave us the Hot Black Singles chart) and scored the biggest hit of Duke’s career with “Sweet Baby.” Clarke repeated the exercise on his next album, Let Me Know You, with inferior results, so if you’re interested in his disco phase, The Clarke/Duke Project is probably the best place to start. Or you could just ignore this altogether and go back to listening to “Inca Roads.”
Given the success they had the first time around, it was pretty much a fait accompli that Stanley Clarke and George Duke would make another album together. The Clarke/Duke Project II is that album. It’s not as funky as the first project, which was already once removed from the funk of George Duke’s solo records (e.g., Follow The Rainbow). Instead, the album is just as likely to trot out synth rock (“Put It On The Line”) or an R&B ballad (“Try Me Baby”) as funk. I notice that the Clarke/Duke albums seem to have a cleaner image than Duke’s solo music, like the positive “Every Reason To Smile” or “The Good Times.” That said, I’m not sure there’s much of a market for clean-cut funk. I can totally see someone putting an old George Duke record on the turntable and rediscovering their booty, but I can’t imagine listeners playing air bass guitar to “Great Danes.” Then again, it’s not like I’m looking into your home with a telescope, so maybe that’s exactly the sort of thing you do. If these projects do nothing more than turn fusion fans onto funk or vice versa, then they’ve already served a purpose. You’ll find more basscrobatics on Stanley Clarke’s albums, though, and better funk on Duke’s. I do enjoy the production value on this record; songs like “You’re Gonna Love It” just ooze quality. Prog fans can stay out of the Projects altogether and scrounge around for a clean copy of The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience if they prefer, but there’s no denying that Duke’s participation elevates Clarke’s funk aspirations.
Beginning with Individual Choice, Jean-Luc Ponty chose to make most of the music himself. Doubling on violin and synthesizers, he combines icy but invigorating musical patterns with warm melodies. In theory, the music stays true to earlier Ponty albums, but in practice this is lighter and (in some ways) more immediate than a Cosmic Messenger or Mystical Adventures. Ponty is joined sparingly by familiar guests, including George Duke, Allan Holdsworth and the rhythm section of Rayford Griffin and Randy Jackson. Even in these cases the music remains mechanical, a synergy of sounds that seems to emanate from a single source. Individual Choice streamlines Ponty’s patented approach to music; some listeners found the change refreshing and accessible, others cold and predictable. Me, I’d pick a little from column A and column B: predictably refreshing. That said, Ponty does depart from his established idiom with the atmospheric “Eulogy To Oscar Romero,” which is more in line with the music of Vangelis. Despite the move toward computerfusion, Individual Choice will still connect with Ponty’s legion of listeners. It’s an evolution of economy rather than a change of direction, the same destination but a new mode of transportation. This sort of fusion does bring new age into the equation, but Ponty’s musical optimism likely resonated with new age listeners already. (I know this writeup is on the short side, but I’m running out of adjectives for Ponty.) And later that same lifetime… I’ve decided there may be merit in periodically returning to the review for post-assessment, so here I am in the middle of June, oh for. The preceding captures many of the right adjectives, sometimes in the wrong order. Everything here does emanate from a fixed point (ponty), and it is effervescent computerfusion, an Om of elation broken into a mosaic or puzzle of well-defined pieces. I’d ignore the rating on this one too; either you like Ponty’s music or you don’t, in which case Individual Choice supports that choice.