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Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Sunday, 06 March 2016 07:31

Jean-Luc Ponty - Original Album Series Volume 2

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Fantastically-priced journey through virtuoso violinist’s prolific turn-of-the-eighties output.

Five albums for the price of one? A bargain for any music lover. And when you get five cuts of the best jazz-fusion violinist ever to tread the stage, well then, this is a bargain on a par with the 1867 purchase of Alaska by the USA from Russia. Well, that might be exaggerating things a bit. But sure, this is still five great albums which, if you’re curious about finding out more about Ponty’s high-octane brand of electronic jazz-fusion music, could be just the set for you.

Jean-Luc Ponty, now 73, has been in some of contemporary jazz’s most influential bands and played with most of the luminaries of the more fusion/jazz-rock end of the jazz spectrum: he was a member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin, and has worked with musicians such as Bela Fleck, Al di Meola, Stanley Clarke, George Duke and, my goodness, even Frank Zappa. Ponty has been music’s go-to guy for the electric and acoustic violin for the past five decades.

He’s sold millions of albums, many of which topped the Billboard Jazz charts, based on a very specific sound which appeals to his fanbase but is, perhaps, more of an acquired taste for the broader jazz audience. As these five albums from 1979-1982 show, Jean-Luc Ponty plays instrumental jazz-fusion/rock: he’s had his own band since leaving the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1975 and signing for Atlantic Records, and consistently through the four decades since, his recognisable sonic signature - tight production, rock drums, high-tempo bass, unashamedly electronic lush harmonies and horn-like, be-bop stylings eschewing the use of vibrato so associated with the violin - has stayed, I think, pretty consistent.

The five albums in this set - A Taste for Passion, Jean-Luc Ponty Live, Civilized Evil, Mystical Adventures & Individual Choice - come from a period when that all-encompassing electronic synth sound was channelled into quasi-orchestral pieces, with numerous movements and compelling musical arcs. On listening to them, they are exciting and show of his talent well; but to the modern ear, they may sound a little dated. But put that 80’s-music phobia aside: there’s a lot here to enjoy.

A Taste for Passion (1979) has ten tracks, on which Ponty’s five-string electronic violin - very much his trademark - is gorgeously dominant, even if Ponty includes some acoustic instruments and evidently tones down the electric sheen on what is one of his more conventional albums. The sound is of its time, reflecting the use of ARP synthesisers, and the production is a little flat. The sound can be a little cloying at times, but some quality tracks still shine through, such as fourth track Beach Girl, which has an infectious bass line over a rather joyful, almost country-sounding violin.

Jean-Lucy Ponty Live (1979) does what it says on the tin. This is a live showcase for Ponty’s output up to this point, with selections from his most-successful seventies albums, such as parts three and four from the Imaginary Voyage suite, and Egocentric Molecules on which guitarist Jamie Glaser gives a McLaughlin-like display of six string virtuosity and speed. As a live album, the overall mix can at time be a little rough, but overall it reproduces well the excitement of a fully plugged-in performance by Ponty’s band.

Civilized Evil (1980) is a heavy, heavy synth exploration, as experienced on opener Demogomania, on which - as on all the tracks - Ponty’s chainsaw-fast, vibrato playing is astonishingly accomplished and so appropriate a component to his band sound, suffused within this licorice soft production sound. Peace Crusaders and the disco vibe of Happy Robots are the album’s most listenable tracks. 

Mystical Adventures (1981) is one of Ponty’s suite albums, in which he develops a theme across a number of movements. Mystical Adventures Parts 1 to V, though all tracks are individually good stood alone, listened to as intended, this collection of tunes is rather good. Ponty’s playing is able to squeeze some skin-tighteningly haunting moods, with surprise features such as unusual drum interludes and organ sounds to keep the listener interested.

1983’s Individual Choice, the last album of the five, is so of its time. The opening bars of Computer Incantations For World Peace could be straight off a Kraftwerk album; a simple melodic device is developed and embellished with a slow urgency, creating an uplifting, tempestuous opening in which the listener is overwhelmed with synth motifs, after which Ponty’s violin glides imperceptibly into the tune. In Spiritual Love is Jan Hammer’s theme from Beverly Hills Cop's second cousin, while title track Individual Choice is a rumbustious apogee, Ponty’s violin darting over a luscious synth carpet. Probably the strongest of the five albums.

Jean-Lucy Ponty’s in this period, indeed for much of his career, has never been pure jazz; his jazz is cut with inspiration from other genres, seeking out ways in which to make the violin relevant in an electronic contemporary jazz world which is porous. On the whole, as this box set shows, Ponty does that, though I think he will be for some people just too close to prog or rock to be part of their regular jazz diet. Nevertheless, Ponty's definitely one of the big beasts of the jazz jungle whose work will grace the ages.

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