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Jimmy Ponder: His Recorded Output

Colter Harper By

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Recordings exist in part to replace the experience of live performance though they convey a different experience to the listener. While recording in a studio environment creates an impression of public performance, it is something quite different, born from different creative processes. Because the listener consumes and evaluate the recording itself, not the processes of recording, the musician must take a product-oriented approach. In a live performance, the creative process, as experienced by performer and participant, becomes a central element in the musical experience.

Jazz musicians often note that they approach performance in a recording studio with more restraint in order to capture an impression of the stage performance and to avoid mistakes. Drummer Greg Bandy, a long time sideman for Ponder, notes "In recording you got to think short and to the point where in the can really experiment and get loose." Implied in this statement is the necessity for an alternate playing style for recording that emphasizes understatement over emotional freedom. Part of the creative energy of the live performance is the close proximity of the musicians, which aids their ability to communicate musically, visually, and orally. Separation in a recording studio removes the physical experience of creating music, replacing it with a purely aural one. Bandy notes that live performance generally provides an improved medium for creative musical expression because "one thing about being close on the bandstand, you feel the other musicians." In contrast, musicians in a studio environment are conscious of the fact that the performance will become a lasting statement of their abilities and so are less likely to experiment with new ideas. What may feel and sound like an inspired moment in a live environment may appear faulty out of context.

Because of this, the concept of the "mistake" functions differently in recording sessions as it does in live performance. In a club, a mistake in the right creative context is a sign of "pushing oneself" or reaching beyond one's abilities. This serves to heighten the experience of the musicians and audience by adding an element of risk to the performance. As Bandy notes, when the musicians are creatively engaged with one another in a live performance "even mistakes sound good." "Mistakes," on a recording, are more likely to be perceived as a flaw in the musicians' abilities than a part of the creative process. Because the musical experience has been reduced from a visual, physical, aural, and social phenomenon to a purely sonic form, the listener becomes "note focused," unable to evaluate or interact the musician's presence.

Ponder often speaks of the importance for continually reaching beyond one's means in a performance, whether in trying to instantaneously conceive a complex rhythmic phrase or rearrange a song on the bandstand. This approach pushes him to continue developing as a creative artist and maintains a high level of awareness, interaction, and respect amongst his sidemen. In live performances, Ponder develops devices that make the music exciting and surprising. When ending a piece Ponder may "tag" the last four measures so to create a new cycle over which to improvise. After building the "tag" to a climax he will begin playing a short rhythmic phrase in which he will give the slightest flick of his hand signaling an immediate cut- off, despite his place in the cycle. If a musician should miss this signal or not break with the right conviction, Ponder will demand that they perform the "tag" again so that they can end the song to his satisfaction. This theatric display could never be rehearsed with convincing results, nor would Ponder strive to do so. His goal in live performance is to balance surprise with anticipation not only for his audience, but for himself and his musicians as well. Rarely is this element of performance captured in Ponder's recordings. A good example is To Reach A Dream where Ponder and organist Lonnie Smith conceptually experiment with no pre-determined arrangements. On the title track, Ponder takes a short initial solo following the melody. Smith enters slowly after Ponder's abrupt solo, singing over his chords as he builds to a massive apex of screaming organ chords. After a quick restatement of the first part of the melody, Smith begins a chord vamp subverting Ponder's attempt to state the melody bridge. Settling into the new harmonic framework that Smith sets up, Ponder launches into an aggressive solo followed by a rhythmic vamp that ends the piece. While the recording has moments of uncertainty, the musicians' abilities to adapt to one another's whims capture a piece of the freedom that is experienced in the informal environment of the "chitlin circuit," where nothing less would be accepted by audiences.


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