Kronomyth 2.0: NO WALK IN THE PARK. This is the pre-prog, unplugged Ponty, which may or may not be your cup of pomegranate tea. I bought a used copy of this years ago, loaned it to someone, never got it back and never really cared. I’ve always felt it was a mixed success, maybe because the idea of a jazz violin seemed revolutionary at the time and yet the bebop arrangements of Sunday Walk were anything but. I guess it’s a new wine in an old wineskin kind of a thing, he wrote, further confounding readers with one of the more obscure parables. In a year or two, this music would be trumped by King Kong anyway. The album has been released many times over the years (I would take the discographical data below with a few grains of salt), often credited to The Jean-Luc Ponty Quartet, which has more to do with loose licensing than popular demand. The supporting players are solid, if a little academic in their approach; jazz always seemed like some pickled curio in the mouth of Europe, but that may be my personal bias. I suppose I could point out individual tracks in the interest of providing some value today, although I honestly don’t have any “favorites” on here. The closing “Suite For Claudia” is at least pretty, and the opening “Sunday Walk” is exciting. (There, I can check off an imaginary checkbox that says “discussed individual songs” next to it.) If I seem uninspired today, Ponty’s probably not to blame. I’m not a big fan of bop; it all sounds the same to me, and the existence of vexing offspring (hardbop, postbop) makes me feel like I’m on the outside of something important looking in. The music on Sunday Walk probably sounded fresh in 1967, but the moment you say something is “fresh,” it isn’t. (Oddly, this rule also seems to apply to packaged salads and most of your vegetables except for potatoes and the hard squashes.)
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.
When the croci in my mind are blooming, then Frank Zappa’s whimsical and colorful genius must be in full flower. I see you in the back of the class, looking out the window while all this wondrous music plays on. Well, wake up! Thirty years on, your grandchildren may quiz you on Frank Zappa and Where were you when it all happened. Do you want to be the doddering old fool who pulls out a picture of the sofa bathed in the blue light of the television and point saying “There?” No you don’t. You want to tune into Hot Rats. The wonderful thing is, there’s still time. Oh, the good seats on the ground floor are already taken, but there’s plenty left in the mezzanine, as good a place as any to witness the miracle of “Peaches En Regalia” or “Son of Mr. Green Genes,” where the composer turns our concept of classical music on its head and gives it a much-needed spanking. Or, if that doesn’t push your button, than surely the sweaty and buck nakedly brilliant blues rock of “Willie The Pimp” and “The Gumbo Variations” must. I’ve spent some two-cent words and a coupla ten-dollar ones trying to sell folks on Frank Zappa’s music, but Hot Rats sells itself. If no other work from Zappa should survive (and somewhere in a conservative cabal sick with the smell of cigars, the possibility is probably being discussed right now), Hot Rats alone would keep the flame alive through the ages. The composition, the arrangements, the musicianship, the sheer entertainment of it all is initially too much to comprehend, but in time it sinks in, and gestates, and first it’s a little blue crocus, and then a white one, and a pink one, and before you know it you’re trading bootlegs with some guy in Holland who says you have to hear this killer version of “Valarie” with an alternate ending (or something like that). Stepping back from myself a bit, I’m sure that jazz/classical hybrids like “Little Umbrellas” could trace themselves back to Duke Ellington or some other modern composer without a trail of bread crumbs, but I don’t listen to a lot of that stuff, so for me Zappa’s the gateway to this new musical world. And, honestly, your grandchildren will probably be asking you stuff like “Ew, how could you have had a crush on Eminem (or Britney Spears)?,” so I wouldn’t worry too much about the Zappa shakedown from future generations. But if they do ask you about Zappa, start putting money away in a trust fund so they can go to Yale and eventually become president. I’d like to hear “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” played at least once at an inaugural ball in my lifetime, and I don’t see any other way to do it.
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 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.
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.
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.
Quintessential Corea. My Spanish Heart displays the duality of Chick Corea’s music: the Romantic classicist on one hand, the mad Moogician on the other. Though born in New England, the Latin music of Corea’s home has followed him throughout his career. On My Spanish Heart, we follow Corea as he paints the brilliant nightsky, sheltered gardens, proud hilltops and street festivals of a Spain remembered. Featuring only a handful of carefully chosen collaborators, these songs become a showcase for Corea’s articulate playing garnished with graceful flourishes, a style that draws comparison to past Romantic composers Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. (Incidentally, I don’t invoke these titans of the tinkling ivory lightly; to my mind, Corea earns their esteemed company on this outing.) Of the songs and cycles featured here, “Armando’s Rhumba” deserves first mention. It is one of the few Corea originals to become a classic in his lifetime. Joined by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, the pair blend their sympathetic styles into a timeless celebration of sound. Also notable is Corea’s transposing of the flamenco for keyboards, exhibited in “Day Danse” and the opening of the four-part “Spanish Fantasy.” These pieces, and to a large extent the entire effort, are forcibly stamped with a Spanish mood. Not that you wouldn’t find the same themes at work on many Corea albums; the airy vocals of Gayle Moran on “Love Castle” or the intellectual pursuits of “Day Danse” and sections of “Spanish Fantasy” are hybrids that Corea has revisited many times over his career. What separates My Spanish Heart from the horde of also-rans is the consistent twisting of the diamond to illuminate a different and yet related facet of Corea’s Spanish fancy. Throwing the listener in the midst of the party on “Night Streets,” then painting a peaceful scene with Stanley Clarke on “The Hilltops,” keeps the audience attuned to the great variety of sounds that Spain can evoke. And Corea even finds occasion to deflate his own balloon for the humorous grotesques of “El Bozo.” At once refined and passionate, My Spanish Heart gets to the heart of Chick Corea’s appeal like no other album I own from him.
Jean-Luc Ponty continues to plumb his pleasant brand of fusion on Cosmic Messenger, keeping at its core the tight, circular patterns found in most of his work from this period. While there are a few tracks that stand out—the mesmerizing title track, the sentimental “I Only Feel Good With You,” the spiritual “Ethereal Mood”—most are indistinguishable from the bulk of his Atlantic output. While Ponty has toned down the violin solos, replacing them with guitar solos from Peter Maunu and Joaquin Lievano in many cases, the decision to keep the rest of the band bound to the same small circumference of music limits their impact. “Egocentric Molecules” does break things open, allowing Ralphe Armstrong and new drummer Casey Scheuerell to flex their muscles. The same can’t be said for “Don’t Let the World Pass You By,” “Fake Paradise” and “The Art of Happiness,” which are based in some cases on nothing more than a couple of notes seesawing back and forth. With the violin and guitars taking the lion’s share of the solos, keyboardist Allan Zavod recedes further into the background, which is something of a shame. Cosmic Messenger is enjoyable and engaging—really, all of Ponty’s albums are to a large extent—but like an animal on a leash it seems unable to stray for any length of time from its established idiom. Whether Cosmic Messenger is deemed consistent or redundant depends on your saturation point for Ponty’s music. Honestly, the tracks represented on the double-disc compilation Le Voyage are probably as much of this message as you need to hear.
Featuring one selection each from his last four albums, plus the amazing solo showcase of “No Strings Attached,” Live offers a lively summation of Ponty’s recent oeuvre. (As in, “We had a lovely evening, we’ll have to have your oeuvre some time.”) It opens with both ends of Aurora, and lets the early spotlight linger longer on bassist Ralphe Armstrong, who amazes with his outpouring on “Aurora Part II.” In fact, Jean-Luc Ponty proves an equal opportunity employer with solos for everyone save Scheuerell. Ponty’s double-guitar sextet (which now included Jamie Glaser on rhythm guitar) was a short-lived experiment begun with Enigmatic Ocean and ending with his next elpee, A Taste For Passion. Often the keyboards and guitars get swirled together into a single line of communication, punctuated by the rhythm section of Armstrong and Scheuerell. While Ponty’s music doesn’t allow for a ton of improvisation/interpretation, like all jazz it sparkles in a live setting. The record’s highlight is the one-man performance of “No Strings Attached,” which uses digital delays and a sequencer to turn Ponty’s violin into an exotic world of sounds. While it’s atypical of his music, “No Strings Attached” might be the best introduction to Ponty’s muse, as it shows off both the musical possibilities of the electric violin and the imagination of the person playing it. The gang returns for a fiery version of “Egocentric Molecules” (one of the better tracks from Cosmic Messenger) where the strings of Ponty, Lievano and Armstrong just singe the senses. Single-record live albums are usually a tease, but with Jean-Luc Ponty: Live you’re getting the best bits up front. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, don’t be afraid to start here.