King Kong. Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa

By Bob Palmer

Rolling Stone, August 6, 1970

KING KONG, Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa
(World Pacific ST· 20172)

Here we have the fruits of one of the most rewarding and boundary-obliterating collaborations in a coon's age. Jean-Luc Ponty is a French gypsy jazz violinist (if categories mean anything anymore) with an unusually fluid style that is full of wide leaps, unorthodox bowing techniques, and big surprises, and he has met his match in the resourceful Frank Zappa, whose efforts here should establish him as a major musical mastermind.

Zappa, donning his Jazz Composer-Arranger suit, emerges as a first-rate practitioner of the art: his previous lack of acceptance by the jazz community is probably due to the same bizarre touches that endear him to his younger audiences. Here he is reminiscent of Charles Mingus, not musically (except for the Mingus-like melody and violin-tenor voicing of "Twenty Small Cigars") but in the way he re-examines and finds new expressive possibilities in his earlier pieces, and combines them with new music that refers to wide areas of experience without centering in any one stylistic bag.

"King Kong," "Idiot Bastard Son," and "Twenty Small Cigars" are in the triple or waltz meter Zappa is so fond of, and Ponty swings them bard, pushing the momentum with Wilton (Jazz Crusaders) Felder's electric bass, shifting from the melodic to the dissonant as easily as the contours of Zappa's compositions. The material, and in particular the arrangements, are as forward-looking and perfectly-realized as all but the very best of current jazz recordings, and Ponty's solos are brilliant in their definition, structure and swing. "Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra" goes beyond the relative familiarity of the waltz material. It is the album's "serious" piece (also its wittiest), running nearly 20 minutes and impossible to categorize. There are sections that sound reminiscent of Copland, early Stravinsky, Stockhausen, or Zappa's early idol Varèse. There are sections for free-blowing, structured, chordal segments, and unpredictable but always effective transitions from one bag to another. Unlike most extended "rock" compositions, this piece goes beyond the mere stringing together of ideas, and emerges with a unified and developmental effect.

Zappa was learning to understand and use a wildly eclectic assortment of musical idioms when many of us were still learning to twist, and he has come far enough by this time to bring off just about anything his unpredictable imagination dictates. There are traces here of the sound of such electrified jazz groups as the Fourth Way; a bow to Thelonius Monk (the ascending ensemble figures in "America Drinks and Goes Home"); the sound and procedures of some of the European composers Zappa admires; the thrust of the brand of rock the Mothers have pioneered; and much more, all sounding at home, as if the idiomatic differences never existed at all. With a soloist of Ponty's stature (he plays with the freedom and incisiveness of the very finest jazz horn men) to work with, the talent necessary to pick the right supporting musicians, and an unfettered context for creativity, Zappa just couldn't miss.

Total Lack Of Commercial Potential? Maybe, but Zappa has succeeded before in foisting off some advanced music on the unsuspecting ears of the record-buying public, and his large following should help Ponty, and King Kong, get the attention they deserve.