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Jimmy Ponder: His Recorded Output

Colter Harper By

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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.

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