Jimmy Ponder: His Recorded Output

Colter Harper By

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Jazz history has been intimately tied to its recorded output. Styles and genres are defined by landmark records, which stand responsible for representing the diffuse activities and artistic visions of a given musical community or individual. However, recordings are not simply glimpses of past musical realities but rather images of those realities filtered through various "lenses." The restrictions of technology, interests of record companies, personalities of record producers, and versatility of musicians all affect what is presented as the musical reality of an individual artist and time period. Scholar Jed Rasula notes that "recordings have the status of an impressive testimony that is, regrettably for the historian, a secondary substitute for the 'living presence' of actual performance."89 There is a danger when creating jazz history from commercial recordings for the interpreter must contend with the processes of recording that set the end product apart from live performance.

There are two general shortcomings encountered when recreating an artist-centered history of jazz from recordings. The first is that the centrality of improvisation is undermined through the reification of specific moments, giving emphasis to performance (music as sound) over the processes enabling the performance (music as a social process). Copious transcriptions are created in an attempt to understand the musical experience and uncover the musical identity of the "master" performer giving the impression that the recreation of sound is the recreation of a creative experience.

The second shortcoming is historiographical in that it concerns the conceptualization of stylistic change. Rasula notes that it is "a sign of systematic misconception that a music celebrated for its improvisatory character is viewed chiefly as an example of developmental progress."91 Recordings create an evolutionary understanding of jazz history by providing concrete objects through which stylistic developments are traced. However, as an art that derives meaning and form from social processes, jazz does not evolve into a more meaningful expression as time passes. Rather, the music changes, therefore maintaining its function as a means through which individuals identify themselves as well as their place within society.

In the following two sections, I compare Ponder's recording and performance experiences so to explore processes outside of artistic creation that shape albums. Ponder, like many other creative artists, has faced recording both as an extension of their creative life and a means to make a living. At the center of this dichotomy is the widely addressed conflict of economic and creative interests, a concept central to most discussions concerning musician integrity and creative authenticity. In producing a viable commodity, Ponder has faced the task of communicating his musical voice, or creating an original and meaningful musical experience, within the constraints of commercial interests. Ultimately, recording becomes an important element in shaping one's musical identity because it is more widely consumed than live performance and hence more widely representative of one's playing abilities. However, I hope to show that commercial recordings subject musicians to different creative processes and hence form creative identities apart from those developed in live performances.


Since the early 1970s, Ponder has recorded as a bandleader for an array of record labels that specialize in jazz and "cross over" music. For Ponder, recording has provided a key source of income as well as a means for exposure. However, as a specialist with an artistic vision, he has, like so many other recording artists of the time, struggled with record producers over creative license. Often there exists a conflict of ideals in the process of recording that shapes the final product. In these cases, the artist must negotiate recording as income and recordings as representatives of creative output. When recording for income, the goal becomes the production of a hit or breakout album. In Ponder's case, several precedents existed as models for success, which producers utilized in hopes of achieving similar results. However, they failed to bring equal exposure.

Wes Montgomery provided the first model of success that was used by record producers in recording Ponder. Montgomery's cross-over recordings, where he played melodies to contemporary hit pop songs with added orchestral arrangements, were a departure from his small ensemble work though they still captured the essence of his approach to guitar. Producers used songs by groups such as the Beatles and Little Anthony and the Imperials to feature Montgomery's smooth sound and signature octave melodies. Improvised sections were either dropped or kept to a minimum to cut down on the song length. Musicians and devoted jazz fans viewed these recordings as a sacrifice of artistic vision for income. What they enabled, however, was greater exposure to earlier records through increased demand for reissues and recognition across a wider audience.

Guitarist George Benson, who paired Montgomery's clean tone with a rhythm and blues and gospel influenced singing style, served as the second model. During the 1960s, Benson was recognized for his prowess as an improviser in small hard-bop instrumental groups. Through the 1970's, Benson produced vocal hits that featured his singing and pop sensibilities. Songs such as "This Masquerade" and "On Broadway" became signature hits that exposed Benson to a larger listening audience while also demonstrating his abilities as an improvising musician. While Benson and Montgomery have been widely recognized as innovative guitarists, both have been criticized for their commercial successes. Jazz historian Ted Gioia notes Benson's mid-1970s successes as a vocalist as "a success that threatened to obscure his talent as a soloist in a Wes Montgomery vien."

Ponder, in his early years of recording, followed a similar path in that he established a reputation as a versatile sideman, which led to commercial recording work as a leader. In the late 1960s, Ponder recorded as a sideman with such artists as Charles Earland, Lou Donaldson, Donald Byrd, Andrew Hill, Big John Patton, and Johnny Hodges. On these recordings, Ponder proved to be equally adept at playing R&B influenced soul jazz as he was at big band and bebopinspired straight ahead. On Byrd's Fancy Free (1969) and John Patton's Mosaic recordings, Ponder's solos are marked by an aggressive, yet harmonically uncomplicated, approach that reveals a training history on the bandstand as well as sensitivity to the blues. Using a pick, Ponder sounds like a younger and rawer version of George Benson and Pat Martino as he builds improvisations around repetitive, double-time licks and searing, single-line melodies laid over mid-tempo swing and shuffle grooves. On veteran saxophonist Johnny Hodges' Rippin and Runnin' (1968), Ponder gives more attention to harmonic movement and melodic development in his improvisations. On the extended composition "Moonflower," Ponder forgoes the pick for his thumb, taking a spacious and laid back solo that complements Hodges' loose phrasing and clear tone. Behind Hodges' solo, Ponder regularly interjects thematic jabs with block chords, dialoguing with drummer Freddie Waits and organist Willie Gardner while bassist Ron Carter creates a steady backdrop. On Lou Donaldson's Say it Loud (1968), Ponder "chickn' picks" over the medium Meters-esque funk, opting for a twangy, punchy sound characteristic of funk guitarists. The song is somewhat politically charged beginning with the band shouting "Say it Loud," to which Ponder interjects a three note riff followed by the band response: "I'm Black and I'm Proud." The song follows the twenty-four bar ABA form with Donaldson, trumpeter Blue Mitchell, and Ponder taking extended solos. Like contemporary mainstream funk, the song is targeted at audiences that want to dance or just "groove" in a social environment, though "Say it Loud" distinguishes itself as crossover by featuring long improvisations.

What becomes clear from this cursory look at Ponder's early work as a sideman is a proficiency in several adjoining eras of African-American popular music. Depending on the needs of the occasion, Ponder may reach back to the feel and orchestral sensitivity of Ellington and Basie's big bands, into the blues styling of singers such as Ruth Brown, the drive and popular appeal of 1950s doo-wop and R&B groups, or the "pocket" of late 1960s and early 70s funk groups. Ponder, however, is not a strict "session player" yet is versatile at providing a number of styles in a recording session. Rather, Ponder's creative voice is defined by a conscious emphasis of those traits similar to all of the above mentioned styles, namely the drive of a cyclical pulse, attention to the expressive capacities of a melody, call and response phrasing, thematic use of dynamics, and the emphasis of audience-performer interaction in creating the music. In any musical setting, Ponder strives foremost to express these traits, none of which can be ascribed to any one style or any one approach to performing. Though Ponder's recordings, particularly during the 1970s, often reflect the various labels' commercially motivated interests, his creative voice and conceptual approach have remained continuous.

Ponder's early records as a leader are the most commercially oriented, reflecting a compositional orientation towards contemporary rock and a sensibility to funk as it was shaped by such artists as James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. Guitarists Montgomery and Benson, while providing a crossover template, also led producers to seek other contemporary popular music from which to draw. Ponder's first record, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, was recorded in 1973 by Cadet records and includes a collection of instrumental pieces heavily colored by funk, disco, and rock and roll. The opening track is an elaborately orchestrated song that largely obscures Ponder's accompanying abilities under layers of string and horns. The arranger spared the orchestration during Ponder's solo, where he attacks the one chord vamp with a torrent of gutsy blues riffs and lines. The second track, in common programming fashion, sets the mood apart from the opening track by presenting a saccharine, love-ballad. This piece exploits Ponder's thick tone, melodic sensitivity, skill with octaves, as well as his ability to build a solo over the simplest of chord changes. These traits would come to be key identifying traits in Ponder's musical voice for as his harmonic and melodic language developes, he continues to maintain the primacy of "feel," "groove," and dynamics over theoretical complexity. The rest of the album forgoes any feels associated with traditional jazz, namely swing. The exception is the jazz standard "I Only Have Eyes For You," which is rendered as a medium tempo pseudo-Latin jazz arrangement. In the recording, there is ample room for Ponder to experiment with the melody and maintain a creative dialogue with bassist Bob Cranshaw though the use of strings to fill sonic space and double the melody draw attention away from the interactive dynamic of the group giving the recording a mundane quality.
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