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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1255

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Jean-Luc Ponty: Life Enigma
by George Graham

(JLP Productions 001 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/26/2001)

Twenty five years ago, the jazz-rock fusion scene yielded a lot of interesting and energetic music. Combining the improvisational approach of jazz with the amplification and in many cases the pyrotechnics of rock, fusion was one of the bright spots of a music era which at the time was falling under the domination of disco. The fusion scene started when jazz great Miles Davis decided he wanted to relate to rock audiences so he brought amplification into his music while at the same opening new musical horizons. Most of the significant fusion pioneers were part of Davis' bands at the time, including John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter of Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and many others, who had, like Davis, come from an acoustic jazz background. Most of these artists have gone back to playing acoustic jazz. Tthe high-energy fusion of that period, with cranked up guitars, wailing synthesizers and mile-a-minute virtuosity has largely disappeared from the music scene, to be replaced by the more sophisticated subtle colors of fusion artists like Pat Metheny. Though there has been something of a revival of popularity in the old recordings which are being re-issued.

One artist who has largely stuck with the fusion scene and continues to make worthwhile music is Jean-Luc Ponty, who has just released a new CD called Life Enigma. Like other fusion players of the 1970s, Ponty had a solid background in acoustic jazz. But before that, he was headed for a career as a classical violinist. A native of France, Ponty was the son of two classical musicians. By his teens, he was already playing in prestigious orchestras, but his father also taught him the clarinet. He began playing in a college jazz band, and eventually found himself drawn into the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Ponty took up the tenor saxophone, but his main instrument was still the violin. Finding himself burning his candle at both ends -- playing with the orchestra by day while staying out late at night playing jazz, he faced a decision of what to do, and opted for jazz, soon developing a distinctive sound that steered away from vibrato on his vibrato. In 1964, he made his first solo album, two years later, he made a live recording with other famous European jazz fiddlers, including Stephane Grappelli and Svend Asmussen.

In 1967, Ponty made his first tour of the US, and recorded with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and with George Duke's trio. In 1969, Frank Zappa was impressed enough with Ponty's amplified violin work to write music for Ponty's album King Kong, and then urged Ponty to move to the US and become a part of Zappa's band. Ponty also made an appearance on Elton John's hit album Honky Chateau, before joining John McLaughlin in the second Mahavishnu Orchestra. Since the mid 1970s, Ponty has been releasing a long series of solo recordings ranging from straight electric fusion to eclectic world music projects.

Since the late 1980s, Ponty has been incorporating synthesizers into his music prominently partly to allow him to play more parts by himself, but also as an interesting creative outlet. Life Enigma is one of those recordings on which the electronics takes a significant part, and the result is a very worthwhile album. It's a reminder how rare good synthesizer-based music has become between mindless repetitive throbbing techno dance on the one hand, and lightweight ethereal new age elevator music on the other. Ponty makes music that is sophisticated, and often downright fascinating from a compositional perspective, and yet sonically very appealing. Ponty's electric violin still is at the center of most of the tracks, but the creative blend of the electronics with the excellent writing on this all-instrumental recording are at least as important on this album.

While three of the tracks are performed entirely by Ponty, he is joined by an international group including Guy Nsangué Akwa on bass, Moustapha Cissé and Theirry Arpino on percussion and William Lecompte on piano.

Fans of Ponty's previous work will not be disappointed is this CD, his violin work is a resourceful as ever, his improvising impressive and his violin technique without equal. Leading off is one of the solo pieces, Two Thousand One Years Ago, with Ponty playing all the instrumentation. It epitomizes the music's distinctive blend of the electronics with Ponty's very much humanly played violin. It's also typical of Ponty's excellent composing that raises instrumentation that has the potential to be just new age noodling into some quite worthwhile. <<>>

With a hint of influence from the rhythms of techno dance scene is Signals from Planet Earth, which features an appearance by bassist Akwa. <<>>

Contrasting to that is the melancholy sound of Lonely Among All, another of the solo performances. The piece's rich, shifting harmonic colors provide a nice setting for Ponty's violin work. About the only quibble I would have is with the electronically generated percussion sounds, which are just not very convincing in this kind of setting. <<>>

The track with the largest ensemble of added players is Firmament, though the piece still maintains a rather laid-back, spare sound. <<>>

One of my favorite pieces on the CD is its title track Life Enigma, which is at times somewhat reminiscent of the music of former Happy the Man synthesist Kit Watkins. Though there is some nice violin work by Ponty, he really shines with the electronic keyboards on this track. <<>>

Ponty has always been one to create music with the sophistication for which the fusion scene was known. Even the Sun Will Die is a fascinating track that comes in a complex shifting meter while still maintaining a relatively easy-going sound. <<>>

Compared to the carefully overdubbed performances on the rest of the CD, a track called Pizzy Cat is a real-time performance by Ponty on a synthesizer triggered by his violin, presumably being played pizzicato, or by plucking the strings. It's as close as this album comes to new age.

Life Enigma ends with a Latin-influenced piece called And Life Goes On, on which Ponty is joined by a more conventional rhythm section of drummer Thierry Arpino and bassist Guy Akwa. <<>> Akwa gets a chance to put in a worthwhile solo. <<>>

Veteran jazz and fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty's new CD Life Enigma is an outstanding album in a style one does not hear a lot these days, quality jazz-rock fusion with the skillful use of synthesizers that avoids electronic music clichés either from the pounding beat of the rave or the lightweight drones of the new agers. Though there some worthy performances by the added musicians, this is mainly Ponty's own album with the violinist playing at least as much on his synthesizer as his fiddle. And his composing is certainly one of the album's strengths with his music combining sophistication, and indeed complexity, with an appealing sound that could easily find an audience beyond Ponty's long-time fans.

In terms of sonic quality, we'll give this CD an "A." While much of the sound is electronically generated, the quality of the mix is excellent and there is a nice spatial sense. The dynamic range is also respectable, given the mostly electronic instrumentation.

One is reminded of the relative rarity of this kind of music these days by the fact that Jean-Luc Ponty, after decades with mostly major record companies, issued this CD on his own label. But one is also reminded that his brand of fusion, incorporating newer musical ingredients, has remained fresh and artistically edifying.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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