Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Jean-Luc Ponty, Cosmic Messenger (1979)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty-One. Archive here.]

The classically-trained avant-garde jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty was one of many extraordinary musicians (along with Shuggie Otis, Captain Beefheart, and Little Feat slide guitarist Lowell George, among others) to replace key Mothers of Invention personnel on Frank Zappa's landmark fusion release Hot Rats in 1969. It was that same year that Ponty put out an album of Zappa compositions, King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. Surveying a seemingly-random selection of the composer's works from Absolutely Free to Chunga's Revenge, the album's most appealing moments were jazzified takes on difficult compositions like "The Idiot Bastard Son" and "Twenty Small Cigars." As in Hot Rats (particularly the legendary title track) Ponty played speedy, electrified violin runs that meshed especially well with Zappa's bleeding wah-wah guitar style. Ponty and Zappa were both voracious consumers of classical music, jazz, pop, rock and classic R&B, and among their peers they had surprisingly little trouble pulling together these influences into epic jazz-rock concertos.

Ten years later, Zappa was putting out atonal blues like Zoot Allures, Jean-Luc Ponty was recovering from a short stint in the Mahavishnu Orchestra (Mark Two), and the landscape of fusion looked a lot different than it had a decade earlier. What had been a novelty in Zappa's heyday had become sublimated through the airwaves and distilled several times since into listener-friendly lite jazz. However, there was also funk and disco to contend with, if one wished to do so, and on Cosmic Messenger Jean-Luc Ponty chose a path between radio-readiness and restless, jittery violin funk--yes, you read that right, "violin funk."

Among other accomplishments, Cosmic Messenger lives up to the requirements of its title. The title track, a rare fusion ballad, is pure transportive, shimmery momentum, with double-tracked guitar leads swooping over dramatic arpeggios. Ponty's violin emerges from this noise and squeaks through blues patterns that would give the average guitarist hand cramps. Among rock violinists of this era, only Roxy Music's Eddie Jobson could match the intensity of his leads. On "Don't Let the World Pass You By," Ponty builds two minutes' worth of tension with a slow, guttural guitar riff, until the song takes off at double, maybe even triple speed. Against this funky layering of  electronic keyboard arpeggios, Ponty moves up and down his violin like a musician possessed by the need to play every every note combination at once. On cowbell rave-ups like "Puppet's Dance," Ponty makes his violin shriek like its an extension of his own voice, disembodied.

If you can overlook its production sheen, Cosmic Messenger is as seductive as it is tense and dramatic. It rarely flags and never runs out of new directions to explore. If Zappa still made music in 1979 like he had ten years earlier, it might have sounded something like this.

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