Jean-Luc Ponty ‘Original Album Series Vol. 2’ 5 CD Box Set (Warner Brothers) 3/5

jean-luc-pontyFrench jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty was a prodigious talent, born in Paris of musician-teachers, and initially trained in classical music at the Paris Conservatoire. By the mid-1960s his attention had shifted to jazz and he performed with the George Duke trio and, then briefly, alongside John McLaughlin as part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, though the two musicians fell out over a contractual dispute concerning the ownership of a Ponty composition. Volume 1 in this budget price series focused on the early period as a leader when Ponty signed for Atlantic records and cut arguably his finest music was recorded between 1975 and 1978 when the band sounded fresh. Albums such as ‘Aurora’ and ‘Imaginary Voyage’ have stood the test of time and combine virtuosity with melodic compositions and are near definitive examples of jazz-rock. This new box set takes over the story in 1979 when Ponty recorded his sixth album for Atlantic with ‘A taste for passion’ and goes through to 1983 while he was resident in Los Angeles. Overall, while there is undoubtedly no shortage of virtuoso performances and a consistently high level of performance from the musicians, the music itself began to become formulaic in nature and by the early 1980s technological innovations in the use of instrumentation had resulted in the sound of individual musicians being lost to some extent. Paradoxically, just as Jean-Luc Ponty’s band became a more cohesive whole, the period of jazz-rock’s dominance was coming to an end and the collection has something of an end of era feel, though not without its individual charms.

Beginning with ‘A taste for passion’ (1979), Ponty and his six piece group were far more controlled in outlook and consequently the music contained a good deal less freedom. At best, the folk-jazz sensibility of ‘Beach girl’ harked back to a more acoustic sound. However, the ARP synthesizer made its appearance on the album and was a sign that technical gimmickry was about to compete with individual musicianship. A first live album, ‘Jean-Luc Pony Live’, surfaced in 1978 and was a recording made in Los Angeles. It contained extended versions of favourite pieces from the previous period 1976-1977 such as parts one and two of ‘Aurora’ from his second album and parts three and four from his third album, ‘Imaginary Voyage’. This is probably the strongest of any of the albums contained in this selection and comprised the same band line-up as on ‘Cosmic Messenger’.

What was significant, however, was that none of the more recent numbers were considered worthy of inclusion. For ‘Civilised Evil’ (1980), the group was reduced to five with a brand new line-up and the sound was considerably more orchestrated with a more prominent use of synthesizers. ‘Mystical adventure’ continued in much the same vein. The band was increasingly being diverted by new electronic technology and, ironically a newly revamped Mahavishnu Orchestra still under John McLaughlin was heading in a similar direction with a seeming obsession for the synthesizer guitar and the synclavier. Pat Metheny would later take up the latter instrument and incorporate it into his own group sound. ‘Mystical adventures’ (1982) was another average recording where Ponty had, it seems, run out of new melodic compositions and fell back on a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘As’ and it does stand out as out of kilter with the rest.

More of a solo album project than a group one, ‘Individual choice’ (1983) is more of a personal experiment with Ponty on electronic violin over a sea of layered synthesizers. Guitarist Alan Holdsworth guests on a couple of numbers, but this a long way from either the early Atlantic albums, or the looser live album and as such jazz-rock fans may not appreciate the departure. Nonetheless, it is a worthy project in its own right and an indication that Ponty the musician was still striving to move forward. Jean-Luc Ponty would go on to record another two albums for Atlantic from the 1980s neither of which were particularly memorable and by then the synthesizer had largely taken over from his former trademark acoustic sound.

Tim Stenhouse