Jimmy Ponder: His Recorded Output

Colter Harper By

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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.

Ponder notes that the producer selected the songs and musicians though he was responsible for arranging the songs after which separate orchestral string parts were added. This was problematic because Ponder was unable to read or write music and was faced with a limited time in the studio. Sir Roland Hanna, a friend and pianist on the session, aided Ponder in organizing the parts for the other musicians by writing charts and directing the band. The producer also influenced the sound of Ponder's guitar. On the title track, Ponder uses a wah-wah pedal and distortion to recreate an impression of the original Beatles rendition. Being unfamiliar with the original, Ponder improvises for the duration of the three and a half minute track leaving the melody for Hanna and the string orchestrator. Ponder's version is faster and brings a heavier funk "feel" to the backbeat. As he recalls, he argued with the producer to replace the session's original bassist with someone whom he felt understood how to play "commercial" funk. The result is a glimpse of a familiar song as conceived and created by a commercially minded record producer as well as a jazz guitarist with sensibilities to contemporary popular music. Ponder was paid "three to four thousand" for the recording session and says he was "thrilled to death" with the results. For him, the record was successful because of the musician's abilities to play "funky" and the "power" of the orchestra behind his playing.


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