Jean-Luc Ponty, of late last seen in the employ of Messrs. Zappa and McLaughlin, signed as a solo artist with Atlantic and began releasing his own brand of fusion. Upon The Wings of Music features, in essence, a slightly inverted Mahavishnu lineup: bassist Ralphe Armstrong, drums, keyboards and guitar, with the violin in the role previously held by the guitar. The novelty of hearing the violin in the lead role is augmented by the fact that Ponty runs his (often) electric violin through various effects as a lead guitarist might do. Combined with the fact that Ponty’s arrangements rarely accord much of a role to the electric guitar, the guitar fusion equation inversion is complete. Of course, Upon The Wings of Music isn’t simply a matter of modifying Mahavishnu and Zappa for the violin. There is some of that, yes, but Ponty has a more human vision of fusion: positive, innocent, maybe even a little naïve (in the nicest way). For every fiery passage and tortuous time change are dreamy, sentimental sections. And then there are the unexpected departures, like “Echoes of the Future,” which could have come from Tangerine Dream. By shifting moods and changing the voice of the violin, Ponty keeps this album fresh and interesting. It’s not the technically stunning statement of Al DiMeola’s first album, but how many people were going to drool over a violin solo anyway? What Ponty does here is establish his instrument as a unique (and sustainable) voice in a fusion field where most folks went down either the guitar or horn path. King Kong may have caught everyone’s attention, but it was here that Ponty’s solo career took flight in earnest.
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.