Jean-Luc Ponty – Mystical Adventures/ Individual Choice (1982/1983)

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by S. Victor Aaron

When I initally got into fusion jazz in the mid to late seventies, Jean-Luc Ponty was one of the first artists I became a fan of, and I still dig his music today. He’s been an enduring figure on the scene, having been recording for over forty years with the large majority of his output falling into the jazz-rock vein. For this article I’m going to tackle two back-to-back releases of his, both of which rate above average for J-LP and catch this prolific artist at a sort of turning point in his career.

But for the uninitiated, some background. Jean-Luc Ponty was born in Avranches, France during World War II. Having first played the violin at age five, Jean-Luc received classical training and became proficient at a young age. He became interested in jazz and followed in the footsteps of the pioneering jazz violinist and fellow countryman Stephane Grappelli, as well as Stuff Smith.

By his mid-twenties, Ponty was going beyond what either man had done with violin jazz when he started adapting John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” approach to the instrument.

In 1969, Ponty played in a small electric jazz combo with keyboardist George Duke and recorded his first fusion jazz record under Frank Zappa’s stewardship, called King Kong. King Kong remains a high water mark for both Zappa and Ponty (and the topic for a future review if I can help it).

After dabbling in free jazz in the early seventies and briefly serving in John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Ponty signed on with Atlantic Records in 1974. Starting with Upon The Wings Of Music, he began a ten year run with the label that bore mostly strong fusion records that rivalled Weather Report and Return To Forever in popularity.

The fusion style of these records, especially in the beginning, bore a much stronger resemblance to the high-powered, lick based jazz-rock of the Mahavishnu Orchestra more than quirky, unpredictable sophistication of his Zappa collaboration.

Ponty did a great job assembling bands of crack musicians who had the chops to match solos with the leader and the depth to tackle some challenging material that sometimes revealed some classical flourishes.

As the seventies turned into the eighties, Jean-Luc Ponty’s music was fading in popularity as flashy wanking gave way to softer forms of fusion and the younger crowd showed much less interest in the involved listening the genre often demanded. Mystical Adventures and Individual Choice are the two albums that best represent how Ponty reacted to these changes.

1982’s Mystical Adventures is arguably the last in the line of Ponty’s post-Mahavishnu albums that he is best known for, as much of the style of those records is found here. For the last time, Ponty uses a suite of songs in an album, as he was fond of doing every other release, and emphasized band interaction and improvision. At the same time, there are some subtle changes.

Most notably, this album showed a big leap in how well it was recorded, Ponty’s own production job was exceptional and possessed a noticeably clearer sound than his previous works. Secondly, the soloing was still a big part of the picture but for the first time, composition took the front seat. Ponty’s and Chris Rhyne’s keyboards laid the foundation for the overall sound, but it’s done with a lighter touch this time.

Using the old vinyl nomenclature, Side One of Mystical Adventures is a five part suite of the same name as the album itself. Each part is a distinct piece of differing tempos and sometimes different keys but seem to tie together by the consistent way the band attacks the material. “Part III” is the highlight with its shifting time meter intro and a soulful, rock guitar solo turn by Jamie Glaser.

Side Two presents the more conventional format of discreet songs. The poppish melody of “Rhythms Of Hope” is underpinned by the upbeat tempo. Ponty’s soloing is followed by a real nice electric bass performance by Randy Jackson. The next track is perhaps the closest thing Ponty has ever been to being radio friendly.

This one is a rare cover co-produced by the late Arif Mardin. A rendition of the minor Stevie Wonder hit “As” where Ponty even sings the chorus, albeit through a vocorder, a popular electronic instrument of that time. “Final Truth” is divided into two parts, although the energetic first part with Rhyne’s grand piano break is vastly superior.

The entire album wraps up nicely with the bumpkin-flavored “Jig”.

On 1983’s Individual Choice, Ponty begins to abandon the drum-keys-bass-guitar-violin formula that he’s used since Upon The Wings Of Music in favor of experimenting with differing configurations to fit the compositions. The result is an album that creates more mood than sponteniety, a kind of hybrid between fusion and new age.

And while I’m not a big new age guy, Ponty manages to add just enough improvision, clever arrangements and compositional skills to keep me interested. The result is an album that isn’t quite as consistent as Mystical Adventures; however, the peaks reach greater heights, because more often than not, the risk taking pays off.

The opener is probably the most New Age-ish of the whole album. But the sequencer excercise “Computer Incantations for World Peace” gets rescued by Ponty’s five string violin in the second half of the song.

Following is the first appearance of the rhythm section and Rayford Griffin is a major force on the drums. That and a killer chord sequence in the head make “Far from the Beaten Paths” one of Ponty’s best rockers of all time.

Following is Ponty (mostly) solo again, where on “In Spiritual Love” Ponty programs all the synths and percussion, as well as violin, both plucked and bowed. But the addition of a masterful mini Moog solo by old cohort George Duke–who recorded his part remotely in his own studio–gives the whole song a kick in the pants.

The flip side of Individual Choice begins with a brief synthesized mournful tribute to murdered Salvadoran
archbishop Oscar Romero. The next track “Nostalgia”, like “In Spiritual Love”, is Ponty again providing an ideal setup for his guest soloist; an affecting melodic line provides the perfect mood for guitarist Allan Holdsworth’s weeping, legato lines.

The title song that follows is Ponty doing all the work again. However, with no foil this time around, it isn’t quite as interesting. Finally, the full band appears again for only the second time on the closer “In Spite Of All”, highlighted by Ponty trading fours with Holdsworth. Indeed, I wouldn’t have minded at all if Holdsworth had appeared on every track.

Nowadays, Jean-Luc Ponty is still performing and after a long lay over, is finally recording records again. I sometimes wonder what has happened to some of the other musicians on these two records discussed here, as they were all quite talented. But after hearing nothing about him for many years, I know now what the bass player is up to.

If you want to know what he’s doing these days, just tune into American Idol tonight. He’ll be sitting on Paula’s right.

 

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