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. 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 on his own, 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.]
Kronomyth 6.0: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. This is basically Frank Zappa making an orchestral jazz/rock record on Dick Bock’s dime, with wonderful results. Bock had signed French violin sensation Jean-Luc Ponty to his World Pacific Jazz label but, frankly, didn’t know what to do with him. Frank did. He assembled various Mothers and talented others into an ad hoc, all-star band and gave them some of his most daunting compositions to reinterpret in a jazz fusion and small orchestra setting. The album’s centerpiece is the nearly 20-minute “Music For Electric Violin And Low-Budget Orchestra,” on which Zappa makes his most compelling case yet for consideration as a serious modern classical composer. In fact, King Kong is the first album where Zappa casts himself primarily in the role of composer; he steps into the fray only once, for the lone Ponty original, “How Would You Like To Have A Head Like That.” Ponty, for his part, finally gets some great material to work with, not to mention some great studio musicians including Ernie Watts, John Guerin, Wilton Felder and Vince DeRosa. King Kong also marks the first collaboration between Frank Zappa and George Duke, who would go on to become a permanent fixture in the Mothers. In every way, this is a quantum leap in Ponty recordings; nothing he recorded before this was as revolutionary or mind-expanding. Ponty’s violin also brings a more melodic touch to the material; “Idiot Bastard Son” has never sounded so charming, and the version of “Twenty Small Cigars” recorded here is simply gorgeous (Zappa would revisit this on Chunga’s Revenge). King Kong is a work of musical genius, a high point in the early catalog of Ponty and Zappa. Honestly, there was little in Ponty’s previous work to suggest a convergence of styles between the jazz violin prodigy and the brooding composer, but there’s no denying that the pairing is magic. Dick Bock deserves a lot of credit for bringing the two musicians together and putting artistic ideals over commercial interests; this album is as much a part of his legacy as Zappa’s or Ponty’s.
Kronomyth 10.0: THE YAWN AND THE RESTLESS. Chunga’s Revenge finds Frank Zappa at a kind of existential crossroads. He had just re-tooled the band, adding Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie), George Duke (displaying a heretofore hidden talent for the trombone) and Jeff Simmons. It was a crack outfit with the theatrically minded Flo and Eddie giving Zappa’s dark humor an added dimension that often felt like musical theatre (“Would You Go All The Way?,” “Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink”). From here on, you got one of several Zappa personalities: the funny, the fiery fretwork or the philharmaniacal monsters. Chunga’s Revenge has a little from columns A, B and C. There is the sense, however, that Zappa was becoming more of a rock and roll centrist, at least relative to earlier creations like Weasels and Weeny. “Transylvania Boogie” and “Road Ladies” are, at their core, blues-rock mutations, while “Sharleena” and “Tell Me You Love Me” are rock songs that could actually be played on the radio. It’s not to say that Zappa had sold out on Chunga’s Revenge (the album, for example, didn’t chart particularly well). It’s simply that you didn’t need a musical degree or a passing familiarity with Igor Stravinsky to appreciate it. Throughout the 70s, most of the Zappa/Mothers albums would sound more or less like Chunga’s Revenge. Zappa released some fantastic albums during this period (The Grand Wazoo, Overnite Sensation), but the decade was largely an audible retreat from the longer compositional works of Lumpy Gravy and King Kong in favor of slightly more commercial fare. Maybe that’s exactly what you were waiting for, maybe not. I would tell you that the intimate reworking of “Twenty Small Cigars” is my favorite thing on here, but that would be a lie, it’s really “Rudy,” and therein lies the philosophical crisis that every Zappa fan would face from now on: Were we smarter than everyone else or just smartasses?
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 4.0: BASS CLASS. From whiz kid to wizard in five short years. On School Days, Stanley Clarke steps out of the shadow of Return To Forever to show us what he’s learned. Suffice to say that fusion fans took note(s). School Days is set up to showcase the many sides of Stanley: fusion, funk, smooth, classical, acoustic, R&B. For progressive fusion fans (i.e., the kind of people who only get jazzed about RTF, Frank Zappa, Brand X, etc.), School Days scores an A+ on the merit of the opening title track alone. “School Days” is basically six feet of genius crammed into eight minutes of music. I walked away from that song thinking that Clarke had found a way to match the best progressive fusion artists of the day and make it look easy. “Quiet Afternoon” explores the romantic/smooth jazz side of Stanley Clarke, though it’s not as painful as you’d think. “The Dance” follows exotic fusion, “Desert Song” journeys into the arid world of acoustic jazz , “Hot Fun” is a crazy funk song that lives up to its name, and “Life Is Just A Game” brings out all the stops in a big fusion finale, including vocals. Earlier albums showcased many of the same skills, but were partly weighed down by multipart suites and occasionally weak arrangements. School Days is different, as Stanley Clarke scores extra credit with one great number after another. Is it his best record? Well, given what I’ve heard so far, that would be an educated guess.
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.”
Kronomyth 14.5: DONTE’S PONTYTOURIO. When Dick Bock arranged for the Duke and Ponty dog-and-pony show at Thee Experience in the Fall of 1969, there was one little problem: no piano. So George Duke had to play the songs on an electric piano, and the rest is history. Twelve years later, listeners got a taste of what the evening should have sounded like with Live At Donte’s. Recorded in the Spring of 1969, the original Blue Note elpee featured four tracks that were part of Ponty’s repertoire at the time but had not been selected for the vinyl Experience. As much as I associate Duke with the electric piano, he is a fiend on the acoustic piano, turning in great performances on songs like Ponty’s “California” (from More Than Meets The Ear). In fact, these early records with Ponty provided great exposure for Duke as well. In this acoustic setting, John Heard is better heard (he’s a far better bass player than Experience would indicate), although drummer Al Cecchi is undermiked. The selections presented here are enjoyable: a pair of originals from Ponty’s last two albums, a Miles Davis song (“Eighty-One” from E.S.P.) and “People,” which Barbra had recently reprised for the film, Funny Girl. The performances are livelier than what you’ll find on Electric Connection, the interplay between Duke and Ponty more spontaneous and creative. At the time of its release, Live At Donte’s was strictly a supplemental release; something to add to your personal Ponty museum, but not an essential recording. These days, however, I would tell you that Donte’s is a place I return to more often than Sunday Walk or Electric Connection, and in fact may be the best way to experience Ponty’s early acoustic phase when you consider the expanded version released in 1995. That disc essentially includes an acoustic version of The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience as a bonus, featuring live recordings of “Foosh,” “Pamukkale” and “Cantaloupe Island,” plus a brief tip of the chapeau to fellow French composer Michel Legrand’s “Sara’s Theme.” The infernal machinations of record companies aside (e.g., the misleading cover), the expanded version of Live At Donte’s is a pleasant trip back in time.
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.