One thing we learned Tuesday night: Enigmatic Ocean (Atlantic, 1977), violinist Jean Luc Ponty’s fourth album for Atlantic Records, is his favorite. And why not? It made it to number one on the jazz charts in 1977. Plus, it’s pretty good.
The Jean Luc Ponty Band brought their Atlantic Years tour through Boulder last Tuesday, recreating the music from what is most likely Ponty’s most popular period. From 1975 through 1985, Ponty released a dozen albums on the Atlantic label and the current tour digs into over half of them to one degree or another. Enigmatic Ocean was by far the best represented with the band performing nearly the entire album during the course of the evening. In fact, only one cut, “Nostalgic Lady,” was omitted.
The program also drew from Imaginary Voyage, (Atlantic, 1976), Fables (Atlantic, 1985), Mystical Adventures (Atlantic, 1982), Civilized Evil, (Atlantic, 1980), A Taste for Passion (Atlantic, 1979) and Cosmic Messenger (Atlantic, 1978).
The beginning of Ponty’s Atlantic years saw him coming off a stint with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and his association with Frank Zappa, including a significant role on Zappa’s Overnite Sensation (Discreet, 1973). It was the hey-day of jazz fusion with the likes of Return to Forever and its constituent parts along with others such as Weather Report, Larry Coryell and Billy Cobham enjoying commercial and artistic success.
All the jazz fusion elements came into play Tuesday night; the tight, fast playing, the impossible licks played in unison by two, three or even four band members, the quirky and ever morphing time signatures, the raging solos. That’s not to say the entire evening was a pyromaniac’s delight, Ponty definitely has a sensitive side and it showed with some acoustic numbers such as "Once a Blue Planet” from Civilized Evil and some electric ballads like “The Gardens of Babylon” from Imaginary Voyage.
Ponty has never been a purist, mixing, as he has, elements from many different musical styles over the years. That same attitude cropped up Tuesday night with a selection from one of his albums for Columbia records (which is where he went after the Atlantic years ended). The band played “Tender Memories” from Storytelling (Columbia, 1989). The main reason for the deviation from the Atlantic years was because Storytelling featured the exact same band Ponty is playing with on this tour. Most of the band members had played with Ponty before that album including on some of the later Atlantic albums, just not all at once.
Drummer Rayford Griffin probably appeared on more albums from the era in question than the others. It’s no wonder Ponty likes to have him around. He easily lays down the kind of hyperactive percussion necessary to play this music right. Guitarist Jamie Glaser is another long-time Ponty associate appearing off and on during the Atlantic years and after. Ponty has always recruited one or more flame-throwing guitarists such as Daryl Stuermer and the late Allan Holdsworth and Glaser is a brother of the same flame. Bassist Baron Browne made his appearance later, but still contributed to several Ponty albums. Like Griffin, Browne is no mere time-keeper in the rhythm section, but instead provides continual counterpoint from the low end. The newest member of the group, keyboard player Wally Minto, didn’t show up until 1989. His playing, both as an accompanist and as a soloist was always tasteful, creative and virtuosic.
Ponty, at 74, remains in fine form. After all these years, he still takes delight in performing this music. He smiled throughout the show, especially when he and one or two other band members nailed an intricate passage with more speed and grace than a cheetah on the hunt. His playing remains fluid and his solos endlessly imaginative.
The last time Ponty was in Boulder (May 24, 2016), he was with the Anderson Ponty Band. The personnel of that band and the current one is identical except for the absence of vocalist Jon Anderson, veteran of the classic rock band Yes. The program for these shows was completely different except ABP performed “Infinite Mirage,” a reworking of “Mirage” with lyrics added by Anderson, and portions of “Enigmatic Ocean.”
It’s plain the years haven’t slowed Ponty’s bow or dampened his enthusiasm for playing this highly technical, energetic and fun music.
Boulder Theater, Boulder, CO
June 13, 2017
By Geoff Anderson - KUVO on-air host, The Night Beat/Vinyl Vault