Jean-Luc Ponty – King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa (1970)

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Months before Miles Davis entered the studio with an impressive assemblage of jazz musicians to create his signature jazz-rock masterwork Bitches Brew, a fringe rock star and an little-known jazz violinist from France got together to make some proto-fusion of their own…and the results hold up nearly as well today.

The title of King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa plainly tells us of the basic information about this album, but even non-fans of Zappa should be impressed with the sophistication of his songs and how he arranged them. Fans of Ponty’s Enigmatic Ocean era should find his full first foray into fusion – years before his career-shaping Atlantic Records run – to be a revelation, with material that truly put his enormous acumen to use. That includes leveraging his classical background as have rarely been done since, and a rarely-seen avant-garde side of him, too.

Zappa recorded four of the six compositions for his own albums around this time, but he arranges these tunes around Ponty, installing in a foundation of slippery scores, and allowing Ponty to jam on top of those. The title song is this strategy put to action with amazing results: a convoluted, fully notated jazz “improvisation” at 5/8 time serves as the theme, which Ponty sails through in unison with vibes player Gene Estes, followed by a real filthy, percussive electric piano solo by George Duke. Ponty comes after that with a clinic, with all the highly accomplished licks he later became known for already fully in place for this March, 1969 session.

Jokey songs like “Idiot Bastard Son” and “American Drinks And Goes Home” retain just enough of the humor to explore side alleys off the main jazz-rock expressway that Zappa loved to do: Duke’s saloon piano on the latter track is something you’d only hear him do on a Zappa project, and former is an occasion for Ponty to slow down and dig into what is actually a great melody, set to a relaxed swing.

“How Would You Like To Have A Head Like That?” is Ponty’s only songwriting credit here, composed with Zappa. This is also Zappa’s only time strapping on a guitar, laying down a bluesy, crunchy solo not too unlike parts of that endless solo he unleashed during “Willie The Pimp” from Hot Rats recorded at roughly the same time.

The centerpiece track is obviously “Music for Electric Violin And Low Budget Orchestra,” a twenty minute encapsulation of modern classical, jazz, rock and free jazz that because of all the stops it makes to these disparate styles, doesn’t sound nearly that long. This is one of those earlier indications of the extent of Zappa’s genius, in putting together fully developed ideas from completely different sources and pulling them together in an eccentric but fluent whole.

This album was a pivot point of sorts for both Ponty and Zappa; Ponty, Duke and saxophonist Ian Underwood would soon join the second incarnation of the Mothers of Invention as key players and Zappa himself set a template for a lot of the “serious” music that would follow intermittently for the rest of his career.

Ponty – and Duke – would go on to have solo music careers of their own that continue to this day, both of which are seemingly little informed by King Kong. But these sessions couldn’t help but to nudge them down the path of jazz-fusion once Frank Zappa showed them all the possibilities that they could explore in this fledgling genre. And this album had already explored and exploited so many of those possibilities before hardly anyone was even aware of that genre.

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