All Things Beautiful (1978) would be Ponder's last full crossover album after which he would begin releasing albums that featured American songbook and jazz standards performed in feels characteristic of 40s and 50s jazz, such as swing, waltz, and bossa nova. Ponder's two Milestone recordings, Down Here On The Ground (1983) and So Many Stars (1983), include famous standards such as Billy Strayhorn
's "Lush Life" and Rogers and Hammerstein's "My Funny Valentine" alongside Motown and R&B hits such as Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" and "Superstition" and Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." These sessions capture, more closely, Ponder's live performance where sets are carefully programmed to include a blend of swing, Latin-jazz, soul-jazz, shuffle blues and ballads. Both albums include a vocal piece ("Down Here On The Ground" and "Save Your Love For Me") and open both sides with the more popular R&B and soul hits. Producer Bob Porter went as far as to organize two different bands, one, including pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Scott Lee, and drummer Greg Bandy, to swing and one, including organist Lonnie Smith
, electric bassist David Eubanks, and drummer Victor Jones, to play funk. By this point, Ponder had solidified his sound, playing his Gibson Super-400 hollow body jazz guitar with only his thumb. "Lush Life," performed solo on Down Here On The Ground, epitomizes Ponder's thick tone and masterly harmonizing and phasing abilities, which would become hallmarks of his later recordings.
LATE RECORDINGS AS A LEADER
Ponder recorded his last album for Milestone records in 1983, after which we went four years without a release as a leader. In 1987 Ponder signed with Muse, a New York record label, founded in 1972 by former Cobblestone Records head Joe Fields. In the 1970s and 80s, Fields signed artists who had made a name in pre-fusion jazz. Hard Bop musicians such as Sonny Stitt
were amongst artists in the Muse roster who maintained their stylistic roots throughout their careers. Field's emphasis on small groups, centered on the traditional jazz rhythm section (acoustic piano, double-bass, and drums), built on the tradition of such labels as Blue Note and Verve. However, while these older labels have continued signing younger artists who represent recent trends in jazz, Muse has focused on largely African-American artists of Ponder's generation who continue to play blues and R&B influenced jazz. In 1997, Muse became HighNote, run under Joe Fields son Barney Fields. The younger Fields has continued with the tradition of recording jazz with deep roots in African-American popular music. As one of the few recording guitarists, who developed on the "chitlin circuit" and continue to compose and interpret the music of popular African-American musicians from Stevie Wonder to Duke Ellington
, Ponder represents a shrinking genre of contemporary jazz.
Ponder's twelve albums for Muse and HighNote show a consistent approach to improvising, song choice, sidemen and overall album character. Ponder's first album for Muse, Mean Streets-No Bridges, includes a mix of standards, ballads, Latin-jazz, and funky instrumentals. As is characteristic of his following albums, Mean Streets opens with a riff-based shuffle blues ("Next Time You See Me"), which features riff-melodies and blues improvisations that formed the core of his "chitlin circuit" performances. Absent is any need to alter the song form and harmonic language or demonstrate the technical prowess of the bebop era. The musicians are unanimously focused on "just swinging" and creating the right feel. The second track of Mean Streets is a funky cover of the popular Burt Bacharach hit "They Long To Be Close To You," hailing to the crossover days of interpreting chart-toppers. The choice vocal standard "Time After Time" features Ponder singing with the affect of a Gospel or R&B singer, adding an element of seduction to the album. Mean Streets provides a model for Ponder's following albums in that it featured a variety of stylistic influences as well as song choices. This approach hails from the "chitlin circuit" where audiences expected a diverse yet blues-rooted selection of music.