Kronomyth 8.0: TOWARD AURORA’S COURT A NYMPH DOTH DWELL, RICH IN ALL BEAUTIES. Aurora sets into motion Ponty’s revolving-door hiring policy with a new set of players featuring guitarist Daryl Stuermer (who was “discovered” by George Duke), bassist Tom Fowler (ex-Zappa) and drummer Norman Fearrington. As one of two albums to feature the brilliant Patrice Rushen on keyboards, this is prime-time Ponty. The violinist wastes little time showing off his new band, roaring out of the gates with the muscular fusion workout, “Is Once Enough?” Ponty then cleverly changes the pace for the warm, Pat Metheny-styled “Renaissance,” featuring Stuermer on acoustic guitar. This leads up to the stunning, two-part “Aurora” and the intoxicating “Passenger of the Dark.” Combining intricate arrangements with instantly gratifying melodies, “Aurora Part I” and “Passenger of the Dark” remain favorites of mine over a long career. “Lost Forest” unfolds beautifully like a Coltrane song, “Between You And Me” mixes midtempo funk with fusion, and Ponty closes the album with the intimate “Waking Dream.” All of Ponty’s Atlantic recordings are more or less variations on the same Mahavishnu-inspired theme, with some variations being better than others. Aurora stands as a shining example of what Ponty has to offer the listener: an impressive balance of musicianship and melody presented in several unique moods. Stuermer and Fowler impress from the first note to the last, while Rushen seems to fade into the background this time and Fearrington has the unenviable task of replacing the irreplaceable Ndugu. Rushen’s reduced imprint on the album is something of a disappointment; maybe it’s the arrangements, maybe it’s the mix, but I couldn’t take my ears off of her on Upon The Wings of Music and I sometimes forget she’s there on Aurora. This record and Imaginary Voyage are my favorites from the Atlantic years, and stand as twin towers in Ponty’s fusion-fueled dreamscape from the Seventies.
The prog connection to Ponty has never been stronger than on “Imaginary Voyage,” which lives up to its name as a magical journey of mythic proportions. It has more than a little to do with Zappa, what with a pair of past alums (Ponty, Fowler) and future FZ member Allan Zavod on keyboards, though Ponty generates a warmer, dreamier vibe than Zappa. The first side of music features five shorter songs which showcase the talents of new guitarist Daryl Steurmer (soon to be written into the great book of Genesis). Daryl’s acoustic jazz guitar on “New Country” and “The Gardens of Babylon” is a side of Steurmer that Genesis fans didn’t see, and more what you’d expect from someone who cited Wes Montgomery as an influence. Of course, Jimi Hendrix was another influence, which is evident on his solo for the funktastic “Tarantula.” Ponty shares the spotlight with Steurmer on the first side, Zavod on the second side, and slips in a spacey solo with “Wandering on the Milky Way.” At the moment, I can’t think of another Ponty album I enjoy so much as Imaginary Voyage. The violin becomes a protean voice, as filthy as a funk guitar and as free as a butterfly, classical and country and confoundingly elusive. Behind Ponty is a stellar fusion outfit with prog credibility from once and future members of Frank Zappa, Genesis and Jethro Tull. It’s a proggier, dreamier and more varied work than his first Atlantic album (Upon the Wings of Music), more likely to please fans who found Camel a pleasant ride. With time, the arpeggiated sequencer patterns and formulaic flights of fancy would grow dull, but here it’s all wonder and imagination.
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.