By Rab Spall
KING KONG – Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa on Music for Electric Violin and Low-Budget Orchestra composed and arranged by Frank Zappa : Liberty Records LBS 833 75.
The violin has been used extensively on recent Zappa albums. It worked with Don Harris who kept faith with his own Soul Motion. Here Ponty is largely manipulated by Zappa. His acrid Coltrane tone is more like soprano saxophone than ever, after electric-sound demons reduce it to comfortable digestibility.
He starts off on King Kong in clean octave, near Christian style over solid bass from Buell Neidlinger of all people. Ponty floats out of the nursery chant Idiot Bastard Son until falling as elsewhere into familiar licks like the swing semitone triplets from 4th to 5th.
Beginning like the Mulligan '50's, Twenty Small Cigars features the baritone violectra, and Ponty's typical high-note fall-off sounds great with this thick dropped resonance. A couple of clinkers are left in – the sound of spontaneity.
A pity that on Ponty's own tune How would you like to have a head like that the drums are overheavy and the static one-bar-at-a-time rock holds Ponty down, but he 'fiddles' strongly nevertheless. There is a very depersonalised tenor solo, the electric piano proves a basically monotonous sound and Zappa's wah wah guitar seems so contrived nowadays.
A catchy three-cent opera-type tune, American Drinks and Goes Home, ends the album. The ambitious and longest track, Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra, will sell your mind, man. A digest with touches of Weill, Penderecki, Ayler – you name it, like a series of slick advertising soundtracks. The Piano Jazz for example, but listen! So simplified and regurgitated the essential feeling's not there, or the Cross-Rhythm-Section with no heart/pulse. But the violin sounds like one, and better for it.
Zappa's cohorts are always fine technicians (here George Duke has some very good moments), but he is a collector not a creator. Ponty, like Grapelli before him, can't get it on without a strong man navigating. Essentially a jazzman 'tis pity he has applied his talents to so intrinsically cold a music as this. His unusual instrumental facility should not be a lightning-fingered end in itself. His violin lacks the adventure or excitement of Leroy Jenkins or Alan Silva who are extending music by real invention while Ponty still peers out from the Conservatoire.
If you're a Zappa head this album has a Supernew flavour; violinists, too, can enjoy it. If you're bothered about real talent you'd do better elsewhere.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net