[Review] Jean-Luc Ponty: King Kong (1970)

The low-budget seduction of a classical/jazz violinist and an ad hoc orchestra.

Kronomyth 6.0: Beauty and the Harry, you’re a 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.

Original LP Version

A1. King Kong (4:54)
A2. Idiot Bastard Son (4:00)
A3. Twenty Small Cigars (5:35)
A4. How Would You Like To Have A Head Like That (Jean-Luc Ponty) (7:14)
B1. Music For Electric Violin And Low-Budget Orchestra (19:20)
B2. America Drinks And Goes Home (2:39)

All songs written and arranged by Frank Zappa unless noted.

The Players

Jean-Luc Ponty (electric violin, baritone violectra), George Duke (electric piano, piano) with Harold Bemko (cello on B1), Donald Christlieb (bassoon on B1), Gene Cipriano (oboe & English horn on B1), Vincent DeRosa (French horn & descant on B1), Gene Estes (vibes & percussion on A1), Wilton Felder (Fender bass on A2/A3/A4/B2), John Guerin (drums on A2/A3/A4/B2), Arthur Maebe (French horn & tuben on B1), Jonathan Meyer (flute on B1), Buell Neidlinger (bass on A1/B1), Milton Thomas (viola on B1), Arthur D. Tripp, III (drums on A1/B1), Ian Underwood (tenor sax on A1, conductor on B1), Ernie Watts (alto & tenor sax on A2/A3/A4/B2), Frank Zappa (guitar on A4). Produced by Richard Bock; engineered by Dick Kunc.

The Pictures

Art direction and design by Ron Wolin.

The Plastic

Released on elpee on May 25, 1970 in the US (World Pacific Jazz, ST-20172), in September 1970 in the UK (Liberty, LBS 83375) and France (Liberty, 83.375) and in 1970 in Japan (Liberty, LP-8982).

  1. Re-issued on elpee and cassette in 1973 in Italy (United Artists, UASL/30 UASL 29485).
  2. Re-issued on compact disc in 1993 in the US and the UK (Blue Note, 7 89539 2).
  3. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee in 2011 (Friday Music).
  4. Re-released on 24-bit remastered compact disc on June 20, 2012 in Japan (World acific, TOCJ-50269).

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