The impulsive imp that sits on my shoulder when I go shopping spotted this in a supermarket display for four dollars and squealed, leaping quickly to add Ponty to my bounty. I had yet to be burned by the violinist, so I couldn’t begrudge the impulse purchase. It sat in my modest tape display for months before I finally peeled off the cellophane, dismayed at the enigmatic packaging: no liner notes, no history behind this historic meeting of these two bowed wizards. Fortunately, the music speaks for itself. The fidelity of the Tradition release is compromised a bit, but even so the electricity of the performance wins the day. Here you’ll find fusion in a humble guise, oftimes still clinging to the coatstrings of traditional jazz. Separating the two violinists is best left to a wiser author; I would accord Jean-Luc Ponty the more progressive passages, Stephane Grappelli the more staid moments, but the entire summit appears to be more about both artists leaving their respective comfort zones to explore new worlds together. There is the classic “Bowing-Bowing” and the sultry “Violin Summit No. 2” (featuring electric guitar as a third voice) to consider, and their achievements surpass any discussion of individual accomplishments. If the tape contained nothing else, my four dollars still would have yielded a small treasure. But of course there is more: the traditional jazz of “Golden Green” (where my small mind sees Grappelli as the dominant auteur), the restrained fusion of “Memorial Jam For Stuff Smith” and the intoxicating “Valerie.” I’m listening to the drum solo in the midst of “Violin Summit No. 2” right now, and it’s the kind of unpredictable pleasure that makes an imp worth having. While it’s a different animal than Ponty’s rigid fusion of the Atlantic years, Violin Summit is a sweet reminder of creativity’s natural curiosity: a blossoming prodigy who drank from the rich founts of a wizard’s wisdom, and an established master who revitalized his powers by tapping the superfluous energy that spills from youth. Whether you find it for four or fourteen dollars, Violin Summit is a peak worth resting at, for the vistas are sometimes stunning to behold.
More mildly intoxicating music from the violin virtuoso. Civilized Evil introduces Randy Jackson and Chris Rhyne into the fold, both of whom quickly become assimilated into the organism that is Ponty’s music. The song titles suggest the theme of a world gone wrong, which might lead to avenues of speculation if you’re so inclined. However, this is not program music in the usual sense where the music takes a linear course. Instead, Ponty’s music mostly chases its own tail, beginning with a catchy riff and expounding on it for four or five minutes. In the middle of each you’ll find a violin solo, a guitar solo (Sturmer’s two are more rock-oriented than Lievano’s leads), and an island of exposition that takes the original theme in a new direction only to return again. The Atlantic years represented a refinement of Jean-Luc Ponty’s fusion from sometimes complex epics into self-contained parcels. On subsequent albums, the violinist would explore sequencer patterns as well, the likes of which are achieved here in an analog mixture of guitar and keyboard on “In Case We Survive.” Though the opening “Demagomania” was issued as the single, the standout selection may be the closing “Once A Blue Planet,” the album’s lone acoustic track. It’s a sad song, lovely of habit, and even a little hopeful. The remaining songs are what you’d expect from Ponty at this point, which is something of a disappointment to me. Maybe the deficiency is mine, a too-ready tendency to file all the violin notes into the same folder. Or maybe Ponty really is writing the same song over a hundred times in his head. Whether you view him as consistent or resistant, Ponty’s posies go down easy. Civilized Evil is merely a middle-packer, good but not gregarious enough to stand out in the field. It’s not a bad place to be, shoulder-to-shoulder with works like A Taste For Passion and Cosmic Messenger, but less startling than an Imaginary Voyage or Mystical Adventures.
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.
More violin music for happy robots. Like his last release, Individual Choice, this is a true solo album with Ponty playing violin, synthesizers and rhythm computer. (I don’t know how you play a rhythm computer, but it doesn’t sound fun.) His music having grown increasingly mechanical over the years, it was all beginning to sound like a digitized kaleidoscope: complex patterns shifting in the background while new sounds appear and disappear on the surface in colorful bursts. Many jazz fusion artists suffered the same mechanical mindmeld in the ‘80s. (Exhibit A: the synthesizer solos from Chick Corea on “Open Mind” and “Watching Birds.”) Ponty was probably better suited to cyborg jazz than most given his limited expression of late: pattern, solo, repeat. There is some freedom in the formula; “Orbital Encounters” could pass for a Frank Zappa track. And Ponty approaches his music with a joie de vivre that shines through the circuitry. But I’ve always felt that jazz does best in steamy and smoky settings. Open Minds is climate-controlled jazz fusion with Ponty potted and placed near a sealed, sunny window. Despite some dull moments, it’s not a bad record. “Open Mind,” “Orbital Encounters” and the rich, smooth flavor of George Benson on “Modern Times Blues” are enjoyable. However, a certain stinginess in packaging and performances conspires to make Open Mind one of his least essential efforts to date. For some reason (perhaps I’m attracted to the color red?), I’m most likely to pull out this or Mystical Adventures when I’m thusly violinclined, and after 20+ sittings it still hasn’t spun its spell.
Kronomyth 23.0: PUSS ‘N YOOTS. After a couple of underwhelming digital DIY albums in which it appeared Jean-Luc might morph into a cyborg, the refreshing Fables appeared. Ponty hired a pair of talented young unknowns, Scott Henderson and Baron Browne, and retained the services of drummer Rayford Griffin to assemble a full-blooded quartet. The new blood seemed to revive the aging master, who recorded some of his most vibrant and creative music in years. The songs still feature the by-now-familiar mix of digital sequencer patterns and Synclavier accompanied by stringed flights of fancy, so Fables isn’t a departure from his Atlantic opuses. Instead, it’s a stretch along that fantastic journey begun with (Once) Upon The Wings of Music where the sights and sounds re-engage the senses through fresh exotica. Whether on the Hackettsian nightmare of “Radioactive Legacy” or the invigorating “Infinite Pursuit” (the obvious offspring of an Open Mind, I wrote earlier), Ponty and company return to the middle world of prog and fusion from whence most of us first met the maestro. As I’ve pointed out earlier (and after), Ponty’s Atlantic albums are essentially slices of the same cake; some pieces have more icing, some are more substantial. Fables is a better mix of sweetness and substance than most, likely to please fusion fans as well as those who appreciate new age atmospherics. Note that the record runs on the short side, so it’s more conducive to a meditative nap than a long journey (i.e., more hare than tortoise).
You’d be forgiven for thinking this a gift twice given. Despite the label change, Jean-Luc Ponty continued on his smooth course, plying the same gentle waves of progressive muzak (I won’t call it pro-zak if you don’t). Though giving this album the nod over an Individual Choice might seem idle musing, The Gift of Time is a fitting followup to Fables. The kaleidoscopic patterns of sound shift with purpose, the melodies are flush with emotion and optimism, the rhythm section is a palpable presence. Personally, I found Fables more refreshing, but The Gift of Time is the better album of intricate computerfusion. Perhaps it was the two years between releases that allowed Ponty to hone these compositions. Whatever the reason, these songs feel like the product of much fine-tuning, humming along like the workings of a Swiss watch warmed by sunlight. Ponty is careful not to lose sight of the human element, an aspect sometimes obscured in his early romance with electronic music. “Faith In You” for example makes an emotional connection with the listener hardly synonymous with the Synclavier. The remainder of the record is rarely less than interesting, exploring mathematical options on “Metamorphosis” or ambient tones on “Introspective Perceptions.” Honestly, most of Ponty’s music reminds me of Jean-Michel Jarre: electronic music with a human touch and an ear for pretty melodies. Maybe it’s the hyphen. Both provide the listener with a refuge from reality, though neither offers more than momentary escape. When the music ends, the spell is dispelled and mundane reality sets in again.
I’m a collector. If I like an artist, I’ll buy their body of work limb by limb. Not that I’m prepared to pay an arm and a leg for an album like Storytelling, but if I find it in a used record store for a few bucks, it’s going back to the lab with me. However, it’s a reflexive act more than premeditated self-medication. Somewhere in the mental associations of my mind is Folder P for Ponty with a little smiley face on it and a hand-written note that reads “progressive rock.” It dates back to Mystical Adventures mostly, the first Ponty album I ever owned. The same thing occurs with Chick Corea, having first purchased Romantic Warrior, and I’ve got a few latter-day lurchers to thank for that knee jerk. The old associations don’t die, they just grow dimmer with every album of smooth fusion that drifts further from the fantastic world of progressive rock. Now, Ponty was never a progressive alchemist so much as a jazz musician who saw electronics as a path to progress. A mystical and adventurous notion in the ‘70s, not so much at the close of the ‘80s. His plugged-in period sounds alike to me: part geometry, part kaleidoscope, all of it advancing the notion that the electronic violin is a viable vehicle for modern jazz. In album-size doses, his music is a refreshing island of intellectual escape. However, each of the islands offers the same basic fare; if Rabbitson Crusoe taught us nothing else, it’s that no menu is an island. Me, I’ve heard this story too many times to be captivated anew by it, but (apparently) not everyone has a saturation point for Ponty.