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?
Kronomyth 14.0: DIDJA GET ANY OUIJA? While Frank Zappa was convalescing from an assault on stage that resulted in a paralyzed arm and crushed larynx, he released two jazz-fusion albums with an updated version of The Mothers that now included Tony Duran on guitar, Erroneous (Alex Dmochowski) on bass, Jeff Simmons on guitar/vocals and a full horn section featuring Sal Marquez on trumpet. Containing a pair each of extended instrumentals and mutant blues songs, Waka/Jawaka is sometimes presented by critics as an extension of Hot Rats, a comparison likely occasioned by the album cover’s reference to the album in the illustration (suggested by Sal Marquez). In fact, I’ve done that myself. But what it really is, is a transitional record between Chunga’s Revenge and The Grand Wazoo. The two songs align almost exactly with “Road Ladies” (“Your Mouth”) and “Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink” (“It Just Might Be A One-Shot Deal”) in terms of their approach and effect on the listener. The two extended instrumentals, “Big Swifty” and “Waka/Jawaka,” are the visions of things to come: surreal semi-classical jazz-fusion giants that amble preponderously in the ear canal for twelve minutes or a lifetime, depending. Transitional records are arriving, they haven’t arrived. Waka/Jawaka doesn’t arrive at the genius of The Grand Wazoo. Among the great Dubyas (which would winclude Weeny, Wazoo and Weasels), Waka/Jawaka might be the least impressive. Or not. They’re all brilliant records, so it’s a little like picking a favorite Beethoven symphony. The ninth. Okay, so that was easier than I thought. But you get the point: you wouldn’t want only eight Beethoven symphonies, and you don’t want to eke out your miserable, crotch-kicking existence without Waka/Jawaka. Because, truly, nothing will re-inflate your balls like listening to an acid trip about a frog segue into the most beautiful pedal steel guitar solo you’ve ever heard and then careen into “Waka/Jawaka,” knowing that only a small percentage of the general population will ever share that joy with you. Lying down and placing a rolled-up towel under your testicles also does the trick, apparently, although I’d put the second side of Waka/Jawaka on the turntable before you lie down just to be safe, since you don’t want to put too much faith in a rolled-up towel.
The last of the great instrumental burlesques, at least until Orchestral Favorites surfaced in 1979. The Grand Wazoo was recorded during Frank Zappa’s recovery from injuries sustained following an on-stage assault (so much for soothing the savage breast), thus entering into the top of two rather select musical subgroups: the recovery recordings (besting both Eno’s Discreet Music and Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, to name a few) and program music dealing with the clash of different musical cultures (progeny of the classic cartoon that includes Patrick Moraz’ eponymous effort and The Residents’ Tune of Two Cities). Drawing musical dialogue from the classical and rock cousins of the jazz family, The Mothers make the sort of music that’ll just curl the toes of anyone who enjoyed the mock-classical adventures of Waka/Jawaka, Weasels and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Zappa has proved adept at writing program music (200 Motels, Joe’s Garage, Thing-Fish), though The Grand Wazoo differs in its instrumental approach; only the opening “For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers)” features vocals, and it’s not empty praise to point out this might be the most perfect amalgam of vocal and instrumental music in all of Zappadom. The natural and seemingly effortless melange of instruments inhabits a unique world where rock, jazz and orchestral sounds meet in the middle of a saucepan and dance to the hot whims of the master composer in convalescence. Yet Zappa is careful to make sure that each of the songs retains a distinct flavor, from the seamy tones of “The Grand Wazoo” to the comic “Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus” to the epic riff that underpins “Eat That Question” (one I’d put on a pedestal with the closing theme to Gentle Giant’s “Three Friends”). Anyway, I could go on for pages—I’m that enthusiastic about this album. If I had to pick a favorite from Frank Zappa, it’d be down to this and Hot Rats.
Somehow, Frank Zappa found a way on Over-Nite Sensation to package his oddball humor and complex arrangements into a commercially palatable package. It was the first Zappa album to go gold, and contained songs (like “Montana”) that could actually be played on FM radio without frightening away listeners. For this reason, AMG rightly refers to this as a “watershed album.” It marked a clear and conscious departure from the complex, often orchestral jazz rock of earlier efforts like Hot Rats and The Grand Wazoo, succinctly summing up the traits that made Zappa so special: the brilliant guitar leads, luminous contributions from fellow artists (Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke, Ruth Underwood), and the perverse sense of humor. Because folks who might not ordinarily buy this album did, some were shocked to hear lyrics about bestiality (“Dirty Love”), orgasms (“Dinah Moe Humm”), and a Mexican witch who just happens to be breeding a dwarf (“Camarillo Brillo”). However, longtime listeners were used to this sort of thing; after all, is anything on here less tasteful than “Magdalena” or “The Mud Shark?” If the material is a little off color, Frank delivers it in a good-humored growl more mischievous than menacing. What’s most impressive about Over-Nite Sensation is that so much music finds its way into these six-minute tunes without bursting the confines of the standard lyric rock song. The band’s ability to start a track like “Zomby Woof” in a relatively straightforward manner, veer off into extracurricular melodies and solos, and then bounce back to find the original structure still intact is amazing. Some might argue that Underwood, Duke and Ponty are given limited roles in these arrangements, but all the better to hear Frank’s guitar burn up the place on “Dirty Love” and “I’m The Slime.” Over-Nite Sensation is probably the most accessible entry point for adventurous rock fans to approach the work of Frank Zappa. The guitarist himself was obviously pleased with his newfound ability to write in a more concise format, and continued in this idiom for the remainder of the decade, relegating his experimental side to his unreleased leviathan, Lather (which escaped in drips and drabs over the ‘70s and ‘80s).
Kronomyth 4.0: THE ISLAND OF LOST SOLUS. This double album is, in reality, two separate sessions recorded in 1971 that were originally intended to be separate albums called Solus and The Inner Source. Long story short, the original music label (SABA) changed hands a couple of times, eventually ending up back in the hands of its original owner at a newly started label, MPS. Recorded with the standing George Duke Trio (John Heard, Dick Berk) plus some extra horns and percussion, the recordings align with Duke’s short tenure in the Cannonball Adderly band (as Joe Zawinul’s replacement, no less) following his first stint with The Mothers. For some reason, MPS opted to interleave the recordings from both sessions, so the flavor of the two is now mixed together. The Inner Source is an important stage in Duke’s journey of self discovery—a pair of Rhodes trips where he explores the range of the electric keyboard in a variety of settings, from Coltrane meditations (“Peace”) to avant-garde (“Solus”) and Africana (“Nigerian Numberama”). To my mind, the stronger pieces are the more direct and melodic: “Feels So Good,” “So There You Go,” “The Inner Source.” “Some Time Ago,” popularized by Sergio Mendes, is another highlight, here re-imagined in a frothy Coltrane treatment. Otherwise, a lot of The Inner Source sounds like a cross between generic jazz (“Love Reborn”) and a Rhodes demonstration record (“Manya”). Those listeners interested in the journey of George Duke would do well to pick up a copy of The Inner Source, if they can find it at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been released on compact disc yet, which may speak more to the condition of the original tapes than commercial interest.
Kronomyth 5.0: A REFLECTION IN FUSION. The music of Frank Zappa was a reaction to the times. The music of George Duke is a reflection of the times. The one breeds genius, the other geniality. Faces In Reflection is as genial an album of jazz fusion as you’ll find in the early catalogs of Stanley Clarke and Lenny White—high praise to fusion aficionados. George Duke unleashes the synthesizers and explores some very interesting spacescapes that will feel instantly familiar to followers of RTF: “North Beach,” “Psychosomatic Dung” (which clearly shows the influence of Frank Zappa) and “Faces In Reflection” (both parts). Like Chick Corea, Duke also intersperses Latin music (“Maria Tres Filhos,” “Da Somba”) and solo piano interludes into the proceedings. Despite the seemingly limited lineup of only bass, keyboards and drums, the trio of Duke, John Heard and Ndugu (Leon Chancler) generate plenty of energy on this session. Judicious multitracking helps to fill in the gaps, such as Duke emulating a rhythm guitar with his synth on “The Opening.” Ndugu, who caught my attention on Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, continues to make a case for himself as one of the pre-eminent jazz rock drummers here; his unique solo on “Maria Tres Filhos” is nothing short of amazing. The consensus that Faces In Reflection is a very good fusion album is accurate, although it’s a crowded field. Duke can certainly lay claim to that field; in fact, this album is very much a reflection of his own personal journey at the time (Flora Purim, Frank Zappa). Yet Duke quickly forsook fusion for funk, leaving this record as a tantalizing testimony to what might have been a fruitful multiyear foray into fusion before funk’s inevitable call. If you’re interested in what a George Duke fusion album would sound like, Faces In Reflection will leave you suitably impressed.
Kronoymth 18.0: SEX & DRUGS & ROXY & ROLL. If you enjoyed Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe, that’s good; it means you’re not dead. It also means you’re going to enjoy Roxy & Elsewhere a whole lot. But isn’t this a live record, you ask, and don’t all live records secretly sort of suck it? Well, yeah, the ones that don’t have strippers, bubble machines, trombone solos, jaw-dropping xylophone monologues and molten lava guitar licks probably do. Fortunately, Roxy & Elsewhere has all that plus immaculate sound (the credits confess to overdubbing) and two elpees of great, new songs such as “Village of the Sun,” “Cheepnis” and “Son of Orange County.” Where most live albums tend to paraphrase a specific period of time, Zappa live albums are the exclamation points to those periods: Fillmore East, Zappa In New York, Tinsel Town Rebellion. Roxy captures what’s best about the Over-Nite Sensation->One Size Fits All period of Zappa without regurgitating it and includes some of his best songs over a long and amazing career. Released as a double album, Roxy plays up the live format by beginning each side with a preamble from Frank plus the usual audience engagement. From there, you’ve got your tasteful sexual innuendo (“Penguin In Bondage”), social criticism (“More Trouble Every Day”), a Firesign Theatre full of strange voices and at least two bands’ worth of brilliant soloing. Although the classical jazz phase was awesome (Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Hot Rats), the 1972-1975 albums managed to best wed Frank’s sense of humor, jazz-inspired genius and rock guitar chops, and in many ways they represent the quintessential Frank Zappa sound. If you were hoping for live versions of “Zomby Woof” or “Montana,” too bad; you’ll need to fast-forward to the Stage series to get your fix. Roxy is rather one of those live albums you shouldn’t try to live without because, truly, your world is probably at least one radioactive poodle song shy of perfection.
Kronomyth 6.0: FUNK, FRANK AND FLORA. Feel is a transitional record between the space fusion of his last effort, Faces In Reflection, and the synth funk of the future. It also features Frank Zappa’s blistering electric guitar on two tracks, billed here as the mysterious Obdewl’l X. If you’re approaching this from Faces, a lot of this will feel familiar. The new wrinkle is the funk (“Funny Funk,” “Old Slipper”) and a certain Barry Whiteness in the spirit/love vibe of songs like “Feel” and “Love.” George Duke has a gentle voice, which he multitracks to give it an extra dimension. Flora Purim also appears on one track, “Yana Aminah,” but it’s a missed opportunity as Duke seems musically out of synch with what should have been a slam-dunk Brazilian jazz number. Zappa is the elephant in the room, literally. His guitar solos on “Love” and “Old Slipper” completely dominate the surrounding landscape like an eclipse; in fact, Duke seems to throw a musical wrench into “Old Slipper” just to prepare the listener for Zappa’s heavy footfalls. The remaining songs follow the space fusion of Faces for the most part: “Rashid,” “Cora Joberge,” “The Once Over.” An interesting exception is the short theme from an unfinished opera, Tzina, a classical jazz piece that explores a heretofore hidden dark side to Duke. (Pieces of Tzina would appear over the years on other Duke works.) The album’s closing “Statement” simply restates the theme to “Love.”
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.”