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.
Beginning with Individual Choice, Jean-Luc Ponty chose to make most of the music himself. Doubling on violin and synthesizers, he combines icy but invigorating musical patterns with warm melodies. In theory, the music stays true to earlier Ponty albums, but in practice this is lighter and (in some ways) more immediate than a Cosmic Messenger or Mystical Adventures. Ponty is joined sparingly by familiar guests, including George Duke, Allan Holdsworth and the rhythm section of Rayford Griffin and Randy Jackson. Even in these cases the music remains mechanical, a synergy of sounds that seems to emanate from a single source. Individual Choice streamlines Ponty’s patented approach to music; some listeners found the change refreshing and accessible, others cold and predictable. Me, I’d pick a little from column A and column B: predictably refreshing. That said, Ponty does depart from his established idiom with the atmospheric “Eulogy To Oscar Romero,” which is more in line with the music of Vangelis. Despite the move toward computerfusion, Individual Choice will still connect with Ponty’s legion of listeners. It’s an evolution of economy rather than a change of direction, the same destination but a new mode of transportation. This sort of fusion does bring new age into the equation, but Ponty’s musical optimism likely resonated with new age listeners already. (I know this writeup is on the short side, but I’m running out of adjectives for Ponty.) And later that same lifetime… I’ve decided there may be merit in periodically returning to the review for post-assessment, so here I am in the middle of June, oh for. The preceding captures many of the right adjectives, sometimes in the wrong order. Everything here does emanate from a fixed point (ponty), and it is effervescent computerfusion, an Om of elation broken into a mosaic or puzzle of well-defined pieces. I’d ignore the rating on this one too; either you like Ponty’s music or you don’t, in which case Individual Choice supports that choice.
More violin music for happy robots. Like his last release, Individual Choice, this is a true solo album with Ponty playing violin, synthesizers and rhythm computer. (I don’t know how you play a rhythm computer, but it doesn’t sound fun.) His music having grown increasingly mechanical over the years, it was all beginning to sound like a digitized kaleidoscope: complex patterns shifting in the background while new sounds appear and disappear on the surface in colorful bursts. Many jazz fusion artists suffered the same mechanical mindmeld in the ‘80s. (Exhibit A: the synthesizer solos from Chick Corea on “Open Mind” and “Watching Birds.”) Ponty was probably better suited to cyborg jazz than most given his limited expression of late: pattern, solo, repeat. There is some freedom in the formula; “Orbital Encounters” could pass for a Frank Zappa track. And Ponty approaches his music with a joie de vivre that shines through the circuitry. But I’ve always felt that jazz does best in steamy and smoky settings. Open Minds is climate-controlled jazz fusion with Ponty potted and placed near a sealed, sunny window. Despite some dull moments, it’s not a bad record. “Open Mind,” “Orbital Encounters” and the rich, smooth flavor of George Benson on “Modern Times Blues” are enjoyable. However, a certain stinginess in packaging and performances conspires to make Open Mind one of his least essential efforts to date. For some reason (perhaps I’m attracted to the color red?), I’m most likely to pull out this or Mystical Adventures when I’m thusly violinclined, and after 20+ sittings it still hasn’t spun its spell.
Kronomyth 23.0: PUSS ‘N YOOTS. After a couple of underwhelming digital DIY albums in which it appeared Jean-Luc might morph into a cyborg, the refreshing Fables appeared. Ponty hired a pair of talented young unknowns, Scott Henderson and Baron Browne, and retained the services of drummer Rayford Griffin to assemble a full-blooded quartet. The new blood seemed to revive the aging master, who recorded some of his most vibrant and creative music in years. The songs still feature the by-now-familiar mix of digital sequencer patterns and Synclavier accompanied by stringed flights of fancy, so Fables isn’t a departure from his Atlantic opuses. Instead, it’s a stretch along that fantastic journey begun with (Once) Upon The Wings of Music where the sights and sounds re-engage the senses through fresh exotica. Whether on the Hackettsian nightmare of “Radioactive Legacy” or the invigorating “Infinite Pursuit” (the obvious offspring of an Open Mind, I wrote earlier), Ponty and company return to the middle world of prog and fusion from whence most of us first met the maestro. As I’ve pointed out earlier (and after), Ponty’s Atlantic albums are essentially slices of the same cake; some pieces have more icing, some are more substantial. Fables is a better mix of sweetness and substance than most, likely to please fusion fans as well as those who appreciate new age atmospherics. Note that the record runs on the short side, so it’s more conducive to a meditative nap than a long journey (i.e., more hare than tortoise).
You’d be forgiven for thinking this a gift twice given. Despite the label change, Jean-Luc Ponty continued on his smooth course, plying the same gentle waves of progressive muzak (I won’t call it pro-zak if you don’t). Though giving this album the nod over an Individual Choice might seem idle musing, The Gift of Time is a fitting followup to Fables. The kaleidoscopic patterns of sound shift with purpose, the melodies are flush with emotion and optimism, the rhythm section is a palpable presence. Personally, I found Fables more refreshing, but The Gift of Time is the better album of intricate computerfusion. Perhaps it was the two years between releases that allowed Ponty to hone these compositions. Whatever the reason, these songs feel like the product of much fine-tuning, humming along like the workings of a Swiss watch warmed by sunlight. Ponty is careful not to lose sight of the human element, an aspect sometimes obscured in his early romance with electronic music. “Faith In You” for example makes an emotional connection with the listener hardly synonymous with the Synclavier. The remainder of the record is rarely less than interesting, exploring mathematical options on “Metamorphosis” or ambient tones on “Introspective Perceptions.” Honestly, most of Ponty’s music reminds me of Jean-Michel Jarre: electronic music with a human touch and an ear for pretty melodies. Maybe it’s the hyphen. Both provide the listener with a refuge from reality, though neither offers more than momentary escape. When the music ends, the spell is dispelled and mundane reality sets in again.
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.
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).