Having already released King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa (Pacific Jazz, 1969) as part of its remastered reissue of Blue Note's 1976 two-disc compilation, Cantaloupe Island (BGO, 2006), which brought together King Kong and The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with The George Duke Trio (World Pacific, 1969), it's a little curious that England's BGO Records would reissue King Kong again as part of a two-fer with the French violinist's one and only big band intersection, Electric Connection (Pacific Jazz, 1968). It may simply be a matter of trying to offer a nicely priced two-fer rather than a single CD issue that wouldn't be a whole lot cheaper. Regardless of the reason, it's a terrific collection, with Electric Connection on its own well worth the price of admission.
The very fine King Kong was already covered in a review of the equally impressive Cantaloupe Island, so the focus here will be on Electric Connection, an album that came about as a collaboration with Gerald Wilson, who arranged a number of Ponty originals as well as a number of jazz tunes including bassist Ron Carter's enduring "Eighty-One," which begins with a somewhat non sequitur intro from Ponty that, laden with echo, foreshadows his more electric fusion work to come in just a few years' time. For those who feel Ponty was and will always remain defined by bigger fusion hit albums like Imaginary Voyage (Atlantic, 1976), with its foot-stomping, countrified hit "New Country," and Enigmatic Ocean (Atlantic, 1977), one of a number of albums to bring international attention to budding guitar icon Allan Holdsworth, Electric Connection, along with King Kong asserts Ponty as a player equally capable of navigating material more firmly centered in the jazz tradition.
But while Electric Connection is, first and foremost, a jazz album, it's one that's influenced, as so many were at the time, by the infusion of rock rhythms and energy. Ponty's appropriately titled "Summit Soul" opens the disc, an unapologetic piece of soul-jazz where the violinist nevertheless demonstrates an ability to twist inside and out of its relatively straightforward changes, with some early indicators of stylistic signatures to come, including creating subtly dissonant harmonies to build subtle tension-and-release. Like "Eight-One," Ponty's "Hypomode Del Sol" opens with a briefly prescient, electrified violin solo before the band, bolstered by bassist Bob West and drummer Paul Humphrey, enters with a relaxed, elegantly swinging vibe that nevertheless heats up from simmer to boil during Ponty's powerful solo, one of his best of the set.
With a 10-piece horn section, Wilson's charts are bright and exuberant, but he also knows when to pull back and let the core groupalso featuring pianist George Duke and guitarist Wilbert Longmireroom to stretch. Electric Connection / King Kong is a welcome reissue that now puts Electric Connection back into printan album that, perhaps more than any of Ponty's early discs, set the stage for what was to come.
Track Listing: CD1 (Electric Connection): Summit Soul; Hypomode Del Sol; Scarborough Fair/Canticle; The Name of the Game; The Loner; Waltz for Clara; Forget; Eighty-One; CD2 (King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa): King Kong; Idiot Bastard Son; Twenty Small Cigars; How Would You Like to Have a Head Like That; Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra; America Drinks and Goes Home.
Personnel: Jean-Luc Ponty: violin (CD1), electric violin (CD2), baritone violectra (CD2); George Duke: piano (CD1), electric piano (CD2), acoustic piano (CD2#5); Wilton Filder: Fender bass (CD2#2, CD2#3, CD2#4, CD2#6); Gene Estes: vibes and percussion (CD2#1); Buell Neidlinger: bass (CD2#1, CD2#5); Arthur D. Tripp, III: drums (CD2#1, CD2#5); Ian Underwood: tenor saxophone (CD2#1), conductor (CD2#5); John Guerin: drums (CD2#2-4, CD2#6); Ernie Watts: alto and tenor saxophones (CD1#2-4, CD1#6); Frank Zappa: guitar (CD2#4); Harold Bemko: cello (CD2#5); Milton Thomas: viola (CD2#5); Jonathan Meyer: flute (CD2#5); Donald Christlieb: bassoon (CD2#5); Gene Cipriano: oboe and English horn (CD2#5); Vincent de Rosa: French horn and descant (CD2#5); Arthur Maebe: French horn and tuben (CD2#5); WIlburt Longmire: guitar (CD1); Bud Shank: alto saxophone (CD1); Tony Ortega: flute (CD2); Richard Aplan: baritone saxophone (CD1); Tony Rusch: trumpet (CD1); Larry McGuire: trumpet (CD1); William Peterson: trumpet (CD1); Paul Hubinon: trumpet (CD1); Thurman Green: trombone (CD1); Frank Strong: trombone (CD1); Mike Wimberly: bass trombone (CD1); Bob West: bass (CD1); Paul Humphrey: drums (CD1).