Kala Ramnath & Ganesh Iyer: Raga Ahir Bhairav / Charka Vaham

This collaboration between two leading Indian violinists is itself a fusion of contrasting musical cultures. North Indian Kala Ramnath and her counterpart from the South, Ganesh Iyer, bring with them their respective Hindustani and Carnatic musical traditions, beautifully merged in this 40-minute performance. The opening section "Alap" is an improvisation in free tempo, starting in the lower register and gradually ascending in a dialogue that gains passion as it progresses, but never loses its centering focus. The following section falls into more structured time, and the pace accelerates in the concluding moments of this morning raga. Throughout, Ramnath and Iyer demonstrate their rich singing tones and distinctive phrasing, a sliding calculus of tone color which moves as smoothly as a skater on pristine ice. In a world of musical sound bites, this recording takes its time and rewards listeners willing to do the same.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Jean-Luc Ponty: Once Upon a Dream

Years ago when I was young, I would travel with some buddies into the big city Boston to see what it had to offer. We preferred to take public transportation so that we didn't have to worry about driving a car in any altered state. (And I am not talking about Rhode Island.)

I remember vividly one freezing winter night going to the Museum of Science to see the new-fangled laser-light show at the Charles Hayden Planetarium (not to be confused with the Hayden Planetarium on Central Park West in another fine city 200 miles to the southwest). We were grateful to find a warm place to hang out and because the planetarium seats allowed us to lie back a bit. I am sure we would laugh today at how primitive the laser show was. But for its day, and our state of consciousness at the time, it was a wonderful experience. I have forgotten the actual laser effects. But to this day I remember the thrill that, for the first time, the show was presented with a music soundtrack. And not just any soundtrack. This was a jazz-fusion soundtrack! Fusion was in the mainstream back then. You could not imagine the nirvana I found myself in. What I remember most is that the majority of the music came from Jean-Luc Ponty.

An excerpt from "Once Upon a Dream" was among the slices of sound I heard that night. This cut is not one of the more aggressive jazz rock numbers. It contains plenty of fast playing, but the velocity is centered within a calm galaxy. Perhaps it accompanied the laser-light trip to Saturn. I don't remember.
All I can say is that the music was cosmic in nature and transported me into the light. Every time I hear it now, it still does. Funny how some memories remain so alive.

I added 2 points to my rating for personal sentiment.

December 07, 2008 · 0 comments


Jean-Luc Ponty: The Gardens of Babylon

The two most important fusion violinists were Jean-Luc Ponty and Jerry Goodman. Each had a classical background but branched out. Ponty came more from the jazz tradition and was European. Goodman entered the genre from the folk-rock angle and was a pure mid-western hippy. Goodman's sound was purposely rough around the edges. This gave his music a strong rock component that was perfect for the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. As Goodman's de facto replacement in the band's second incarnation, Ponty brought something different. His sound was purer, more European and more symphonic. That was perfect for the expanded Mahavishnu, which was now almost a real orchestra in size. Goodman's personal confidence issues have hampered his career for 30 years, but Ponty's stint in the MO led to a successful run that has kept him in the spotlight ever since.

"The Gardens of Babylon" was a typical Jean-Luc Ponty commercial vehicle of the day. Its cyclical melody would instantly find its way to the pleasure part of your brain and force you to buy the record. His guitarist Daryl Steurmer plays a pretty acoustic interlude before Ponty's long electric sonorous solo. There is much to be admired both in the tune's melody and the band's sound. This was a cleaner and more organized fusion. But therein lies the rub. This tune is very good, yet under its surface lurked the basic raw materials that would lead to the WAVE and Quiet Storm radio formats, which in turn doomed fusion as an escape from the mundane world. The seeds of Smooth Jazz (excuse me while I snap a violin string) were first planted in music like this.

December 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Royce Campbell (featuring Joe Kennedy): Happy Rhythm

An empyrean venture on multiple levels: three Olympian musicians, ethereal feel, supernal solos, a sonically cosmic recording, Joe Kennedy's finale, and a transcendent celebration of his life. Joe was one of the handful of jazz violinists who played in the classic Venuti style, yet clearly had his own voice and vocabulary. With equal parts swing and phrase-ability, Joe was a master musician. On this hip track he syncs up and trades off on the melody with guitarist Royce Campbell, and three brilliant solos unfold, the last from lyrical Paul Langosch (a Tony Bennett veteran), who stylishly adds enough slap-and-pull percussion on his bass to groove ad infinitum. Royce Campbell is a beatific player who imparts inspired lines with just the right stroke of swing and sensitivity. He produced the CD with Joe's spirit in mind, and it shines lastingly.

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments


Ornette Coleman: Sound Gravitation

Ornette Coleman took a step or two in a new direction with The Empty Foxhole. Whether or not it was a direction worth pursuing is something listeners must decide for themselves. The inclusion of his 10-year-old son as the drummer raised quite a ruckus when this record came out. Young Denardo was clearly his father's son: his iconoclastic (can a 10-year-old be an iconoclast?) approach on this freely improvised track disdains any semblance of time-keeping, instead accenting and responding to what his dad and Charlie Haden do on violin and bass, respectively. Ornette's violin technique consists primarily of scraped double-stops and very fast, serpentine lines. There's little melodic definition; it's mostly an exploration of timbre and texture. Haden mixes it up with Coleman & Son, while his fluttering pizzicato serves as an important organizing element. Denardo clearly has big ears and quick reflexes. Everything he plays relates to what his elders are doing. On some of the album's other tracks, he's forced into something of a conventional role, which doesn't suit him at this point. He's much better equipped to play absolutely free, as he does here with some success. This is a very noisy performance, more akin to '80s-era non-idiomatic free improvisation than jazz. Not for everyone, certainly. Maybe not even for Ornette. On his next two Blue Note albums he used Elvin Jones.

September 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Jerry Goodman: Endless November

For all intents and purposes, ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra violinist Jerry Goodman was absent from the music scene for a full decade from about 1975 to 1985. The acrimonious breakup of the highly popular Mahavishnu Orchestra and Goodman's own self-confidence issues, which really came to the fore during the recording of his first post-Mahavishnu album Like Children with Jan Hammer, proved to be too much for Goodman. He withdrew. Goodman, truly a great musician, has fought these feelings of inadequacy his whole career. When I interviewed him for my book on the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he said he was in a good place. But he joked that that could change at any moment.

I remember how thrilled I was in 1985 to see On the Future of Aviation in the CD rack at the Tower Records on Ventura Boulevard. I was even happier after my first listen. Goodman's comeback album was not raw powered-fusion like Mahavishnu. It was actually strangely more symphonic than Mahavishnu. It was a more deliberate effort at cohesion. "Endless November" is a perfect example. It takes its sweet time developing a long mysterious sing-songy vibe that nonetheless is full of driving power. The trio sounds like 6 or 7 players. There had to be overdubbing because Goodman could not play the guitar and violin simultaneously, as he does so effectively in presenting the tune's gravitational theme. Even so, the full sound obtained is testament to Goodman's aural sensibilities. Fred Simon plays synthesizers on the piece and perfectly surrounds Goodman melodically and texturally. Drummer Wertico backbeats his ass off. "Endless November" is a compelling composition and performance. It boggles the mind how such a great artist as Goodman could have presented this and other art at such a high level, yet still wonder if he was good enough. But the human mind is beyond understanding. I want to hear some new Jerry Goodman music. I hope he would like to play some.

August 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Gary Burton & Stéphane Grappelli: Blue in Green

One of the greatest joys of jazz is unexpected collaboration. In no other genre do artists of varied ages, cultures and musical backgrounds meet to play as often. To be honest, not all of these get- togethers end with successful music. But in almost every case, these attempts are to be admired for the effort. Luckily, when legendary Gypsy jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli met with one of jazz's greatest vibists, Gary Burton, things worked out just fine. Grappelli is ostensibly a guest star on this recording, which features a variation of the classic Gary Burton Quartet.

Conventional wisdom would say that an interpretation of "Blue in Green" would be more suited to the modern jazz that Burton was known for. And indeed Burton plays the introduction and the first solo over Swallow's slow, throbbing bass with a comforting ease. His confidence is even more impressive when you realize that this Gary Burton was only 29 years old. Meanwhile, his iconic melodic foil Stéphane Grappelli was 64. How would Grappelli approach the tune? Would he give it a bit of European swing? No. A bit of the Gypsy? Well, maybe a little. But what he mostly delivers is a thought-provoking and touching display of what jazz interpretation is all about. The collaborative process requires players to fully understand the music and the varying dynamics in play. Musicians of this quality can perform any type of music because they respect it. And they can perform it effectively together because they listen to and respect each other.

July 17, 2008 · 0 comments


Jean-Luc Ponty: Demagomania

I wear the fact I have never seen more than 30 seconds of American Idol as a badge of honor. To me it is a farce. From what I have been told and read, at the start of each season, they purposely show tryouts from some of the most untalented people in the world before they pick their finalists. There is no other purpose behind this practice than to humiliate these people in front of a national audience. Worse still are that many of these helpless hopefuls don't even know the show is making fun of them. This is despicable. I have not even gotten to the fact that even the winners of the show are nothing more than corporate creations who will be dropped from their contracts in a New York second if they fail to sell a million records. Why all this talk about American Idol? Well, the television and music worlds would have been much better places if one of the show's judges, Randy Jackson, had stayed in the jazz business!

Randy Jackson is a great bassist. Early in his career he appeared on several jazz and fusion albums and played with the likes of Billy Cobham and Herbie Hancock. He infuses Jean-Luc Ponty's "Demagomania" with a throbbing bass which provides a funky support for Ponty's flights and a point of reference for drummer Mark Craney and keyboardist Chris Rhyne. The tune trends to the fusion anthem category but never engages in bombast. Though not credited, it sounds like there is some early computer keyboard sequencing used on the track. At times, Jackson even sounds that way. But in his case, it is just perfect timekeeping. Ponty is a bit restrained in his playing. But that is what this evenhanded, almost mantra-like performance requires.

June 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Jean-Luc Ponty: Egocentric Molecules

In the 1970s, it seemed Jean-Luc Ponty was putting an album out every three months. They say you must strike while the iron is hot. What better way to compress the time needed to produce an LP than by recording a live album featuring Ponty's hits culled from over the last several months? Boy, I miss those days. There was a new fusion record available every six minutes.

"Egocentric Molecules" first appeared on Ponty's Cosmic Messenger. It is given a wonderful frenetic treatment for this lucky crowd. The first solo is taken by guitarist Lieviano. It rocks! Ralphe Armstrong then puts his bass through the paces. He uses some distortion which was totally out of character for him. Ponty's solo wailing is reminiscent of his performances on Mahavishnu's Visions of the Emerald Beyond. His sustained notes fill a vacuum and eventually break though its container. An abrupt end to the song brings the crowd to its feet. Very few musicians could thrill an audience the way Ponty could when he was a fusion god.

June 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Jean-Luc Ponty: Cosmic Messenger

"Cosmic Messenger" is a gentle spaced-out jazz-rock ballad. Guitarists Maanu and Lieviano create a slow spatial arpeggio round-robin. Ponty plays pizzicato through some sort of echo device. The guitarists then double-up on the theme. Ponty soon joins them in soaring mode. Ponty then goes effects crazy – although at a very slow tempo. Reverb, echoes and perhaps some early form of looping are all heard. Scheuerell's measured elastic drumming offers calming reassurance. The ambience created is meditative and relaxing. This is a state of mind I wish more messengers would deliver.

There weren't too many fusion ballads floating around back then. But educated jazz-rock audiences grew to appreciate them as diners appreciate a sorbet between courses. You need to cleanse that palate to get ready for the next over-the-top fusion anthem. There is something funny about fusion ballads. If you sped them up by a power of two, they became fusion anthems.

June 05, 2008 · 1 comment


Jean-Luc Ponty: The Trans-Love Express

To many Jean-Luc Ponty aficionados, Enigmatic Ocean was the best album he ever released. Certainly this track is among his best jazz-rock forays. Ralphe Armstong, the bassist Ponty brought with him from the second incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, lays down a fat directional bassline. Holdsworth's solo is grungy enough to create a counterpoint to Ponty's clean violin lines. The slightest bit of funk enters via Armstrong and Smith. But it is that polite funk that doesn't harm anyone. Ponty mastered the commercial market for fusion at the time by providing hook-laden tunes of short, radio-friendly duration. Plenty of DJs found time to spin this 4-minute track leading into their hourly newscasts. It would still fit that purpose today – if there were any damn jazz-rock DJs left.

June 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Jean-Luc Ponty: New Country

Arguably, "New Country" is the most popular tune Ponty ever wrote and performed. At the time of its release, you couldn't walk two steps without hearing it from some radio. It is a hook-filled hoedown of European fusion and bluegrass. At the time, this was not something you would ordinarily have associated with the French sophisticate Ponty. Would he next pull on a pair of cowboy boots? I guess, maybe. After all, he did play "Montana" with Frank Zappa.

The perfectly radio-timed 3-minute "New Country" is a toe-tapping and handclapping excursion. The rapid staccato opening and closing theme is played in unison by Stuermer and Ponty. In between, you can't help but be caught up in the song's aggressive swinging rhythms and ingratiating riffs. Ponty is a fiddler here, not a violinist. Stuermer's acoustic guitar playing is outstanding. The song is over before you know it. Pass the sarsaparilla.

Back in the day, "New Country" was my least favorite of all of Jean-Luc Ponty's tunes. I couldn't stomach even a hint of country music at that time. I still can't. However, over the years to a certain extent I have come to appreciate one of its progeny in the form of newgrass because of its jazz qualities. In hindsight, Jean-Luc Ponty's "New Country" was a major step for the "newgrass" movement of which he was not even a part. Years later in 2006, Ponty was asked to perform his composition with the leading newgrass star mandolin player Sam Bush on his album Laps in Seven. I think it is safe to say that "New Country" is probably the only fusion piece that has ever been played at a square dance.

June 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Shakti: La Danse Du Bonheur

In the mid-1970s, "La Danse Du Bonheur" was a real showstopper in concert for Shakti. When the modern version of the Shakti band, Remember Shakti, hit the road again in the late '90s, the tune was resurrected with the same result. Co-written by McLaughlin and L. Shankar, "La Danse Du Bonheur" is the indo-jazz equivalent of a Western "feel good" song.

An engaging Indian vocal call and response (konokol) begins the tune. Per tradition, these voices establish the rhythm cycle of the upbeat, sing-songy piece. Violinist Shankar plays the melody and takes the only solo, with McLaughlin playing Western chords as backing. Climbing up and down the octaves with increasing rapidity and emotion, Shankar uses every possible position on the neck. The drumming is remarkably fast and precise. Brevity and harmony are not as integral a part of Indian music as they tend to be in the Western forms. But "La Danse Du Bonheur," almost more than any other Shakti tune, is shorter and contains more harmonic elements. This is perhaps the reason non-Indian fans of the new music this band brought to the table were better able to identify with it. They got swept up in its joyful message, which easily transcends any musical idiom.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Jean-Luc Ponty: Upon the Wings of Music

Jean-Luc Ponty is the most commercially successful fusion violinist. On the face of it, that doesn't seem to be such a big deal because there were and are only a handful of them. But jazz-rock did allow a return to popularity of the jazz violin. Such legendary players as Stuff Smith, blueser Sugar Cane Harris, jazzer Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli had made their marks. But the violin as an instrument for the young jazz or rock fan didn't seem to be in the cards. That was changed by fusion players Ponty, Jerry Goodman, Zbigniew Seifert, L. Shankar, Allen Sloan and a few others. Ponty in particular, having played with old-school Grappelli and Smith and new-school Frank Zappa and Mahavishnu, bridged the generations. He also popularized the instrument enough to front bands that sold records by the ton and brought droves of younger fans to large venues.

"Upon the Wings of Music" is a typical Ponty performance from that time. Its title suggests its vibe. As a general rule, Ponty's tunes would be introduced by a minute or two of soaring electric bowing. In fact, the word "soaring" in the dictionary should have Ponty's picture next to it. There's a little more room on this tune for some improvisational light funk and jazz noodling, which Rushen, Armstrong and Chandler do quite well. But the overall feel is dominated by Ponty's melodious strains that quite literally allow you to float away on a cloud.

June 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Jean-Luc Ponty: Is Once Enough?

"Is Once Enough?" is one the most energetic performances appearing on any Jean-Luc Ponty led recording. It is a true fusion ball-buster. Its engaging quick-tempo melody is an instant attention grabber. Ponty is a hot knife cutting through butter on this 5-minute piece, which seems to last only about 2 minutes. He is flying up and down the neck at breakneck speed and taking no prisoners. His sonorous runs overflow. Gifted keyboardist Rushen adds some nice touches. Frank Zappa alumnus Fowler plays a driving bass. Guitarist Stuermer comes to the party with his full arsenal. His solo is something any fusion guitarist would be proud to call his own. Though Stuermer proves to be his own man, at times here he sounds like a jacked-up Tommy Bolin.

This is harder fusion than generally appeared on Ponty's records. As the years would go by, most of this high-octane stuff would leave his repertoire, probably so as not to offend the marketplace. But that's just my theory.

June 03, 2008 · 0 comments


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